Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Campus Farming at Skidmore in Saratoga

Skidmore students grow their own....

Faith Nichola, Elizabeth Cohen, Gabby Stern, Margot Reisner

Early in the school and late in the afternoon last month, a tightrope was stretched between two trees in the quad. One guy walked the entire thing after a couple of tries. Not far off at the Dining Hall, a similar balancing act is taking place. 

Skidmore students are taking on something called the Real Food Challenge (RFC) requiring food served at schools be humane, fair trade, ecological, and local. The goal is that this is true for 20% of school food by 2020. 

The school isn’t committing to the challenge, not on paper anyway, the students are. Because of their work, last October, over 11% of school food came from a garden next to the Admissions Building.

Skidmore has four things going for it: a decent growing zone, a dining services director who calls the shots, an aggressive grass roots Food Action Group and Gabby Stern, among others.

Last summer Stern (’13) toiled in the soil at the school garden, interned at American Farmland Trust and ran the Farmers Market in downtown Saratoga – a local food trifecta.

“I came into Skidmore with zero experience,” said Stern, an environmental studies major. “Then I started working the garden. There I was, 18 years old and it was the first time I harvested a carrot, or a sweet potato. There is a problem with that. How have I gone my entire life not knowing this?”

Under the umbrella of the Environmental Action Club, the Food Working Group began four years ago when students broke ground. Stern took over as manager of the garden in 2010 and contracted with the dining hall to sell the vegetables. That was the start of the Local Food Initiative, an effort dedicated to getting more local food into the school.

“I learned from other members of the group. It was hands on,” says Stern, “A few professors from school gave their two cents and we just learned on our own. We get a lot of support from Environmental Studies and it is incredible how much they covet this garden. It has been a great part of my education, this garden.

Stern gets no academic credits for this work but this semester Faith Nichola (’14) is doing an internship to perform data analysis for the Real Food Challenge.  She will also be creating reports from that data for Skidmore administration to provide them with a better understanding of the process.

Elizabeth Cohen, (’14) got involved in the garden when Sarah Arndt (’13?) introduced her to RNC. Originally from Putney Vermont Cohen grew up with a garden in the back yard so the origins of a carrot were familiar to her. Coming to Skidmore put organic food in a different light. 

“Working in the garden made me think about where things are coming from. Affordability and access aren’t the same for everybody,” she said adding that even if everybody decided to eat local and organic, it would be great, but it is impossible.

Riley Neugebauer, Skidmore’s Sustainability Coordinator, believes that food is a social justice issue. “Sustainability includes equity (justice), ecology, and economy,” she says.

‘If people don't have access to one of their most basic needs – food – or if the only food they have access to is unhealthy, grown with pesticides that accumulate in our bodies over time, harm the environment that we are all a part of, and doesn't tell a story about where it came from or who grew it or why that matters…then we have a justice issue.”

‘Margot Reisner, (’14) from San Francisco, is now managing the garden and takes the long view. This semester she is managing the garden and next semester she will travel to Australia to study permaculture.

Reisner, who is in the social and cultural track of environmental studies defined permaculture as follows: “Permaculture is the mentality is that everything we do as humans has to do with ecology. If it doesn’t have to do with ecology, then it doesn’t make sense at all. If there is a discrepancy between the way human systems work and the way ecology works, then you are going to have a problem. Permaculture mimics the way ecological systems work.”

After graduation, Reisner will return to California to start her own farm.
“I just want to have a place to have people live and be healthy,” she said. 

By Mary A. Nelen (’79)