By Wendy Soderburg '82, Photos by Coral von Zumwalt
Published Jul 1, 2013 8:00 AM
Green buildings are good. Green food is even better—and increasingly popular at UCLA, just as it is around the country. Feeding the trend: a thriving organic garden north of the residence halls on the Hill, and everybody in the campus community is eating it up.
In the highest corner of the UCLA Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, past the swimming pools and the picnic tables, is a hidden treasure known as the Student Community Garden. This tiny, amazingly fertile patch of land is lovingly tended by students, staff, faculty, administrators, friends and community members who make up Dig, the garden's caretaking group.
Mint, sage, basil, oregano, cilantro and rosemary grow year-round, while springtime produces a bounty of lettuces, Swiss chard, collard greens, green onions, radishes and wild strawberries. In the summer, the garden yields tomatoes, kale, jalapeños, beans, squash, beets, blueberries and grapes.
"We're digging things up, we're digging into urban agriculture at UCLA and we are, in general, just diggin' the whole thing and having fun with it," says garden leader Alyssa Curran, who graduated in June with a degree in geography/environmental studies.
Established in 2006 by the student group E3: Ecology, Economy, Equity, the garden is governed by two simple policies: Take out what you put in and share with the community. Those who work on the garden get first crack at the crops; the rest goes to campus food events (picnics, potlucks, etc.) held by associated student groups. The main goals, of course, are to build skills in organic gardening, cultivate a local food system and just enjoy being outdoors in the Southern California sun.
"Sustainability and health are inextricably linked and, more and more, that is becoming part of the conversation at UCLA," says Nurit Katz M.P.P. /M.B.A. '08, UCLA's chief sustainability officer. She notes that even a tiny garden like UCLA's can't survive without the help of such partners as UCLA Recreation, which supplied the land at the Sunset Canyon Rec Center, or funding from ASUCLA's The Green Initiative Fund and from the Healthy Campus Initiative, supported by philanthropists Jane and Terry Semel.
Campuswide interest in organic food has spread from the garden to the classroom, as evidenced by Visiting Assistant Professor Anne McKnight's winter 2013 environmental studies course, "Urban Agriculture in Los Angeles: History and Practice." The course explored urban gardening in cities as a response to health crises and global environmental concerns. And UCLA life scientist Amy Rowat's wildly popular "Science and Food" course, with its related lecture series featuring well-known chefs, just concluded its second successful season.
For many, though, it's the garden that brings it all home. Says Curran: "One morning, a group of 4-yearolds came by the garden unexpectedly with their teachers from the UCLA Lab School. They were curiously checking out the garden and tasting things along the way, and their faces and reactions to some of the plants were too funny. Especially the arugula and one little boy who tasted it—just a bit too peppery for him, I think! He recovered with some mint, and all was well again in the garden."