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Students create urban garden for service-learning

By Joe Ruppel
On November 6, 2011

DePaul students harvested the season's first radishes Nov. 2 at Eden Place, a 3.5-acre nature center in Fuller Park, as part of the university's new service-learning course Urban and Sustainable Agriculture.

The popular course, with 27 students in its first term, focuses on food security and access, especially in food deserts, like Fuller Park. Students also learn about cold crop farming and urban agriculture through weekly lectures and 25 hours of service learning.

Professor Barb Willard made a proposal in 2010 for a STEM service-learning grant through Campus Compact that emphasized promoting nutrition and agriculture in underserved communities.

"To really test the Vincentian mission in the field, that's why I'm so excited for this class," Willard said.

Throughout the fall term, students in Willard's class have been getting hands-on experience with urban farming in the "hoop house," a 72-foot long, 30-foot wide season extender that allows for four-season farming. The hoop house accomplishes this efficient kind of farming by trapping heat from the sun and soil.

The class started work in the hoop house at the beginning of the term by repairing it and preparing the soil for planting.

"Initially it was a lot of very hard labor," Willard said. "When we came here, [the hoop house] was in dust-bowl condition."

Students had to start by re-erecting the hoop house itself, which had been knocked over by a storm. The class then brought in 15-cubic yards of new soil and mushroom fertilizer to mend the poor soil quality. They also installed a drip irrigation system and prepared and seeded the beds.

"It's been a lot of improvising and working with what we have and making the best of it," Willard said.

Willard said the hoop house provided the class with problem solving and real-world experience that would be hard to get anywhere else.

"To be able to come out to this community and see what a food desert looks like, to see the challenges of vacant lot gardening where there are few resources, gives students the opportunity to consistently see the problems of lack of access," Willard said.

"The relationship Eden Place has with DePaul, as well as other universities, has allowed us to help train a lot of college students with hands-on experience that they couldn't get at most urban colleges," said Michael Howard, the director of Fuller Park community development.

"There's nothing else really like this class because there's so much hands-on experience," senior environmental studies major Danielle Miller, said.

When asked what she would take away from the class, junior Jessica Williams, a Spanish and geography major with a minor in environmental science, said, "A lot of the sociology behind food in the city and the fact that food education is not the same in all parts of the city."

Willard said the experience would have been very different had the class been conducted in an established urban garden.

"They would have pointed and said, ‘weed this, water this.' Here, we have complete freedom," Willard said. "It has been our experimental plot, and the students have had a lot of leeway in deciding how this garden came to fruition."

As students harvested radishes Nov. 2, Williams noticed that the vegetables should have been better thinned in the beds.

"My fault," Willard told Williams.

"Anyone who wants perfection in this class isn't going to get it, but I think it's a great lesson to learn because you're never going to have perfection in farming," Willard said.

Along with radishes, students planted spinach, green leaf lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, beets, mustard greens, acorn squash and kohlrabi.

The original plan for the vegetables grown in the hoop house was to hold a farmer's market at DePaul; however, Willard said they won't all be ready before winter break. Willard said the new plan is to donate the vegetables to Chicago chefs who host cooking demonstrations in food deserts to teach people how to cook with local produce.

Urban and Sustainable Agriculture will offered again during the 2012 fall quarter.

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