Students Learn Sustainable Food Practices in University Peace Garden
Oct. 14, 2015
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— The weather app is open all the time on Kevin Ryan’s iPhone 5.
That’s because Ryan ’16 is one of two student managers of Illinois Wesleyan University’s
Peace Garden. And as manager, Ryan can tell you exactly when and how much rain last fell on the
garden, when it’s forecast to rain again, or if tonight’s projected low temperature
will dip down enough to destroy the last harvestable basil plants of the season.
For Ryan, an environmental studies minor who grew up in the Chicagoland suburb of Deerfield, fretting over overnight
lows or a lack of rainfall is a new experience. “I grew up in a suburb with nice,
cut grass, and I was never a big fan of rain,” said Ryan. “I have a very different
The Peace Garden has that effect on the attitudes of students and visitors alike.
On a recent fall morning, third graders on a field trip screeched and ran in horror
from a spider on a wooden stake – then ran back to investigate it further as Professor
of Political Science Jim Simeone explained why “spiders in the garden are our friends.”
It’s a teaching moment that stretches across generations, socioeconomic background,
and life experience with agriculture. The half-acre Peace Garden just north of campus
is a tool where students and community members can learn about producing food through
sustainable practices. The garden is a place where students in health, environmental
studies, social justice, sustainability and other courses put their knowledge into
Students also learn the basic principles of sustainable agriculture. In the Peace
Garden, all crops are grown organically, without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
Rainwater is harvested and funneled into the drip-line irrigation system. Mulching,
composting and other techniques are used to improve the soil and maintain its integrity.
Once harvested, some of the produce from the garden is sold in a market on campus.
Some is donated to Sodexo, the University’s food service provider. The rest is donated
to food pantries and other social service agencies.
The garden grew from the idea of student Jessica Meyer ’11 and other Peace Fellows guided by Betty Ritchie-Birrer '47 and Ivan Birrer Endowed Professor William Munro.
Under Simeone’s advice, Weir Fellows Ryan Dyar ’14 and Danny Kenny ’13 along with Peace Fellow Alex Monzon ’13 steered
the garden from idea to inception with the first shovel of sod turned over in April
2012. A hoop house (or greenhouse) extended the growing season. This year’s crops
included potatoes, herbs, tomatoes, tomatillos, spinach, peppers, garlic, lettuce,
Swiss chard and more.
While the homegrown spinach, arugula and other vegetables are tasty, Grace McCarten’16
is especially proud of the fact that the garden’s pesticide-free bounty is donated
to food pantries.
McCarten is vice president of the Peace Garden Registered Student Organization (RSO),
a student club that serves as a link between interns such as Ryan and co-manager Savannah
Feher ’17, and IWU students who might want to spend an hour or two volunteering to
plant, harvest or water.
A self-described “outdoorsy kid” who spent most of her childhood playing in the woods
near her home in Rockford, Ill., McCarten had never considered growing her own food
or even planting flowers until she joined the Peace Garden RSO. McCarten got involved
through her close friend Becky Fiedler ’16, an environmental studies major serving
as the club’s president.
“A lot of students like gardening or knowing more about where food really comes from,
but they don’t know how to get involved or they’re afraid it’s going to be a big time
commitment,” said McCarten. “We want to make it easy for people to just give it a
try, whenever it fits into their schedules.”
Peace Garden RSO members serve as extra hands during busy periods – planting and harvest
times especially. On a recent day, members helped dig hundreds of pounds of the Yukon
Gold and Red La Soda varieties of potatoes. For their labors, the potato diggers later
dined on pizza baked in a portable wood-fired oven and topped with spinach, garlic,
tomatillos and green peppers harvested from the garden.
“We like to bribe them with food,” joked Simeone, who also serves as the contact person
between the interns and community partners.
Treats were also a sweet reward for RSO members when McCarten and Fiedler organized
an off-campus event to pick apples. The group visited the farm of Environmental Studies
Program Coordinator Laurine Brown’s father to experiment with the best procedures
and tools for gleaning local fruit. The students picked 200 pounds of Cortland, Larkspur
and Granny Smith apples – some of which have been sold through the weekly campus market.
On market days, Ryan and Feher ’17, an environmental studies major from Des Peres,
Mo. get a real taste of running a small business, from production to after-markets.
Keeping the campus garden going is an integral part of their internships, which is
required for environmental studies majors and minors. Peace Garden produce is harvested
and transported to campus via the Veggie Bike to sell to students, faculty and staff. Proceeds are then plowed back into the Peace
Garden’s budget. Feher rides her bike to the Western Avenue Community Center and donates
whatever produce is left over.
If it all sounds very bucolic and pastoral, that’s because it can be. In the short
time he’s co-managed the garden with Feher, Ryan has been surprised at how much he
enjoys the hard work that yields an unexpected peace. “I’m graduating in the spring,
my friends and I are all looking for jobs, there are bills to pay – it’s all very
hectic,” Ryan said. “This is a good place to come when I want to clear my head and
just get away from everything for a little while.”
Ryan has also discovered an appreciation for the hard work that goes into producing
food. “Growing food is such an arbitrary concept for people who didn’t grow up on
farms,” said Ryan. “For most of us, food comes from the grocery store or some ‘other’
place, but you don’t really know where that place is.” Simeone noted less than two
percent of the U.S. population is involved in farming. “Our collective knowledge of
where food comes from and how the system might be different is at an all-time low,”
said Simeone, who teaches two courses in the Environmental Studies program.
“Asking such basic questions is at the heart of the liberal arts,” Simeone added.
“Where does our food come from? What is the soil? We ask those basic questions and
we set off through many disciplines to form answers.” Using his course “Sustainable
Agriculture” as an example, Simeone said topics range from the Dust Bowl, to a two-week
composting experiment, to cation exchange capacity, an inherent soil characteristic
that influences the soil’s ability to hold onto essential nutrients.
“Students learn that soil is more than just dirt,” said Simeone. “It’s a living community.”