Students Work for a Just Local Food System

GW’s community garden donates more than 1,200 pounds of produce to the homeless.

Jesse Schaffer, (left) a junior and president of the Food Justice Alliance, delivers fresh vegetables from GW's GroW Garden to John Murphy, assistant director of kitchen operations at Miriam’s Kitchen.
November 19, 2012

This year, a garden covering less than a quarter of a square city block has made a real impact on food security for underserved Washingtonians. All it took was a couple of George Washington University students, dozens of committed volunteers and some agricultural know-how.

The student-run Foggy Bottom GroW garden – located on the north side of H Street between 23rd and 24th streets – tripled in size this year and quadrupled its harvest, donating more than 1,200 pounds of food to Miriam’s Kitchen, a nearby nonprofit organization that provides nutritious meals to the homeless.

While the garden provides students with an opportunity to get their hands dirty, it has a much wider mission.

“We built the garden because we believe that healthy, sustainable, local and just food is a human right, and individuals at Miriam’s Kitchen deserve to have access to good local food,” said Jesse Schaffer, a junior and president of the Food Justice Alliance, the student organization that manages the garden. “There’s a lot of talk at GW about student activism and mobilizing for causes around the globe, but when individuals blocks away from you aren’t getting healthy, just food, well, that’s an injustice that we won’t stand for.”

The garden, which opened in September 2009, was overhauled last year when the Food Justice Alliance received a $10,000 award from Nature’s Path, an organic food company. The funds allowed the students to remove their small wooden raised beds and begin gardening directly in the earth. This year, the garden’s harvest has included spicy and sweet peppers, carrots, eggplant, beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, Swiss chard, kale, collard greens, squash and zucchini as well as a variety of fresh herbs.

“We're very proud of how productive the GroW Garden was this season and are impressed by the ongoing efforts of the students to donate produce to Miriam’s Kitchen,” said Shannon Ross, stakeholder engagement coordinator in GW’s Office of Sustainability.

During the school year, about 10 to 20 students work in the garden every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. And during the summer when a lot of the student volunteers are away from campus, faculty, staff and community members fill the void. This past summer, a local high school writing class, a mission trip group from Denver and a group of students from Georgetown Day School all volunteered in the garden.

The students see their garden not just as an investment in the community but a model for the future of sustainable food.

“The garden is a great example of how food can be grown anywhere,” said Haley Burns, a sophomore and vice president of the Food Justice Alliance. “Our garden is completely organic with the pest control being our hands. If the more than 1,200 pounds of produce that we harvested next to a sidewalk in the middle of D.C. doesn’t prove that food can be local, I don’t know what does.”

When Ms. Burns was choosing which university to attend, she was influenced by the existence of the garden. She wanted a university that would provide her with opportunities to improve nutrition and food systems. Now a year and a half later, Ms. Burns, who plans to major in public health and minor in sustainability, helps coordinate the garden’s volunteers and manage its production.

“Volunteering in the garden has not just impacted my experience at GW, it has made my GW experience,” said Ms. Burns. “This university is big, and the city is big, which can be really overwhelming. Spending time in the garden with my hands in the dirt takes me away from my stress and brings me back to myself. A lot of students at GW want to make a difference in the world – working in the garden allows me to tangibly feel and see that we are doing this.”

According to John Murphy, assistant director of kitchen operations at Miriam’s Kitchen, the donated food from the GroW Garden is some of the best he’s ever seen.

“Every time guests taste the fresh and wholesome food that the GroW Garden donates, they know how much we as a community care about their well-being. It’s an important and crucial link to solving chronic homelessness,” said Mr. Murphy. “Notwithstanding the health benefits of having such fresh produce, the sight of fresh collard greens, tomatoes, kale and every other harvest the GroW Garden donates makes our guests feel more positive and have a better disposition knowing they have access to quality food.”

For Mr. Schaffer, who is studying international affairs with a concentration in environmental studies, the garden represents not just a source of food for the patrons at Miriam’s Kitchen, but an effort to transform the local food system.

 “We can talk as much as we want about food justice and sustainability, but I think it doesn't mean anything until you challenge the status quo. That’s what we're doing. We're saying that we refuse to accept the unjust food system as it exists today,” he said. “We're here to fight for just food, and to remind people and empower people to take control of our food system.”