Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Freshman 15? Try freshman greens

MORAGA — At St. Mary's College, the campus vegetable garden comes with a motto: "By the students, for the students and, ultimately, in the students."

The four-month-old plot, tucked against the hills near the school's southeastern corner, is one of several new attempts by East Bay students to make their produce as local as possible. At colleges across the region, campus-grown vegetables and herbs are making their way into dining halls.

"How much more local can you get than behind a residence hall?" asked Julie Welch, a Sodexo food-service employee who has been the garden steward since it was created in August.

The St. Mary's garden has been a lesson in sustainability. Students used old bleachers from Madigan Gym and wood stumps to create the terraced rows, and they fertilized the less-than-ideal soil with compost from the dining halls.

Among the winter vegetables growing now: lettuce, spinach, chard, bok choy and collard greens, most of which end up in dining-hall meals. Welch hopes to raise chickens there.

Gardens have cropped up at several East Bay colleges in recent years. The proliferation is part of the nation's widespread move toward sustainable food production, said Michael Pollan, a UC Berkeley journalism professor and author of books that include "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Botany of Desire."

Vegetable gardening is indicative of students' relatively new interest in food issues, Pollan said. The Advertisementactivity fits in well with young adulthood, he said.

"Food is a way to assert your identity," he said. "I think it's one of the more encouraging things going on at college campuses."

Although schools such as UC Berkeley and Yale University have had student-run gardens for years, the movement has caught on at smaller schools. At Mills College in Oakland, students and others have routinely tended a garden since June 2007.

The approximately 120-square-foot plot has produced both vegetables and herbs, and students recently put together anti-stress kits with garden-grown lavender to help colleagues through final exams. Campus dining halls are not using the produce yet, but students hope that will come.

"Mostly we just take it home," said Sophie Leininger, a Mills art-studio major from Davis. "Everybody's pretty excited and happy when they get to eat from the garden."

Does the shift toward fresh produce portend the end of the freshman 15 — the weight gain traditionally associated with new college students? Perhaps not, Pollan said, but healthy eating habits are a nice side effect of student gardens.

"When kids get control of their diet for the first time, they react in different ways," he said. "Historically, I think people had lousy eating habits, so this is heartening."

Student gardens have not been limited to four-year schools. Some community colleges are trying out their green thumbs as well.

Oakland's Laney College has a garden growing along the two-year school's eastern edge. Workers recently planted basil and thyme there, and cooking instructor David Jones said he plans a unique challenge: growing the bhut jolokia, the world's hottest pepper.

"I'm definitely going to wear gloves when I handle them," Jones said. "I don't know if I'll bite into one."

Being in the East Bay, where Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant revolutionized the local-produce concept, has helped generate gardening interest among students, he said. Jones also takes students on field trips to the extensive produce department at the Berkeley Bowl supermarket.

"This is kind of our challenge in the culinary department, trying to incorporate more of this stuff into the cooking," Jones said. "I definitely would like to get more people aware of the concept of seasonal food."

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