Rutgers Organic Garden Blooms Healthier Habits on Campus
Student effort gets 'thumbs up' from Rachael Ray
During winter break of her sophomore year at Rutgers, Rebecca Granet noticed a difference between the taste of the lettuce in campus dining halls and the lettuce at her parents' home.
“The lettuce at home is organically grown,” says the junior journalism and media studies major from West Long Branch, New Jersey. “The taste is just so different that I knew I wanted to raise awareness about the benefits of eating produce grown without using sprays or pesticides.”
Granet sat down to write a proposal for what would become The Garden of Eden, an initiative to empower students to make informed decisions about the food they eat through hands-on experiences, education and outreach.
Organic produce, including arugula, chard, radishes, and other vegetables, is planted, cultivated and harvested by students and served at Neilson Dining Hall on Douglass Campus each Wednesday. The produce is served on harvest day to ensure that students receive its optimal nutritional benefits.
"The dedication of the students who work on this initiative is inspiring," Granet says. “They put in a lot of hours, documenting the progress of the produce, rotating on a watering schedule, and literally seeing the produce through - from cultivation to consumption.”
Granet hopes the campaign will spread to other universities and has been featured by Rachael Ray's Yum-O! organization, which empowers kids and their families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking. The Garden of Eden's College Coalition challenges undergraduate students across the country to create their own organic farms and educate their peers about the benefits of healthy eating.
College students often find it difficult to balance a nutritious diet with their stressful lifestyles. And they aren’t alone. An American Heart Association survey released in March reports that 80 percent of adults struggle to eat the recommended amount of produce every day.
Granet believes that encouraging her peers to make healthier food choices will empower them to make informed decisions about the food they eat and help shape their eating habits for the rest of their lives. “We can teach our kids how to eat healthfully. So, why not educate college students about these benefits now?”
Sophomore public health major Katie Stump takes her newly found nutritional responsibility quite seriously. She joined The Garden of Eden team because she wanted to know more about how the produce she eats is grown – whether it’s been genetically modified, or if pesticides were used.
“This is my first opportunity to have complete control over what I eat, and I was kind of concerned,” Stump says. “I was really afraid of gaining the ‘Freshman 15,’ so I stayed away from fried foods and stayed at the salad bar, but some salad ingredients aren’t even healthy.”
Like Stump, many Rutgers students come from communities with little to no education about the benefits of organic over processed food, or access to higher quality grocery stores. While cost and convenience often play a prohibitive role in the consumption of organic foods, The Garden of Eden allows students from all socioeconomic and regional backgrounds to discover the benefits of eating produce from known sources without additives.
The organic initiative began with a small plot of land on the university’s Student Sustainable Farm on Cook Campus. With five acres under cultivation, it’s the nation’s largest organic farm managed by students. The garden continues to expand and has moved into the farm’s insulated greenhouse.
Interested students also have the opportunity to earn academic credit in agroecology while learning about food production and biological concepts. Plant biology professor Ed Durner offers invaluable insight into natural ecosystems, pest-plant relationships, and agricultural techniques.
Students say they derive a great sense of joy and accomplishment from their involvement in The Garden of Eden; some consider their time in the greenhouse a relaxing escape.
“Farming is the last thing I thought I’d get involved in college,” says Stump, who never gardened before joining the initiative. “It’s a great stress reliever. I actually love getting up at 7 a.m. to enjoy the quiet mornings in the greenhouse.”
Indeed, the lessons from the Garden of Eden have already begun to impact the lives of students who are part of the organic initiative.
“My dad has gotten super excited,” Stump says about her family’s small garden at their Millville home. “He tested strawberries, but the wildlife in the area got to them first!”