SSU's Gardeners are a Growing Concern for Campus Kitchens - in a Good Way

brandongrowers.jpegIn the early hours in the morning on any given day, many students can be found picking and washing freshly grown crops, such as kale and arugula on open plots of land in Penngrove.

These students are part of the Student Growers Grant program, a student- run business and agriculture program that is based on passion and dedication to organic growing.

These Sonoma State University students are growing their own food, selling it to the university, which in turn localizes the food eaten by students on campus. 

This program began with a small plot of land and a few students with a passion for organic and locally grown produce.

Growers Grant recipient and Environmental Studies and Energy Management and Design major, Jamal Isaak Edwards sees the importance of growing food within the community.

"It is important for people to be aware of what they're eating and where their food is coming from," said Edwards. "If your buying food from a farm 1000 miles away, you're not going see the benefit in your local community."

Edwards has always had an interest in growing his own produce but was never given the opportunity to do so. The Growers Grant program allows Edwards the opportunity to keep his own produce and land and to be an independent contractor to the university.

jamal.jpegThis program, developed by Associated Students last September, represents sustainability as well as student entrepreneurial development. It allows students to collectively grow large amounts of produce off campus, sell the produce directly to Sonoma State University and be compensated for their work.

The Associated Students currently offers five $300 growers grants, which funds the liability insurance that the student growers are required to obtain.

The student recipients of the Grower Grant are serving as sole proprietors to Sonoma State University. They are growing produce that goes directly into the food that is served at all of the on-campus dining venues.

Much of the produce that is grown goes into food prepared at the Kitchens in the Student Center. Produce such as kale and tomatoes that are being grown by students, are being used in the salad bar there.

In the Student Center, there is primarily one kitchen used for all of the dining venues. This makes the fresh produce that is being grown accessible to all of the dining venues.

Besides the upkeep of the produce and land, grant recipients are also expected to create and maintain a business plan that illustrates their production and distribution goals. Recipients are also required to complete an Approved Produce Gardener Certification through the Sonoma County Agriculture Commission.

The business aspect of the Growers Grant program allows students of all majors and interests to gain hands-on experience that isn't available to students outside of the business department.

sharathegrower.pngWhat keeps her coming back

Shara Vilagi is one of the Grower Grant recipients who find great rewards despite the slugs and frost that occasionally emerge.

"It's one thing to spend some time outside or go on a walk, and it's another thing entirely to be working in a garden. While you're out there you feel relaxed and present, without the worry that we all have in our lives," she says.

"Like many things you might get there not wanting to do any of the work, but once I start I just keep going. It's the personal reward of working with the land and caring for the plants that keeps me coming back."

Vilagi says she gets to spend some of her time in a beautiful garden with "equally amazing people."

"At the end of the day I walk away feeling not only accomplished but fulfilled and more grounded. I leave with a clearer mind set, able to then do all the other things in my life with more concentration."

The Growers Grant program also supports and enhances Sonoma State University's relationship with the local community. Though this program is developed and sponsored by SSU, students are expected to grow and keep their produce on property located off campus.

The idea for this program originally came from Associated Students President, Mac Hart and current Co-Director of the Growers Grant program, Brandon Sanders.

Co-Director Sanders sees the Growers Grant program as cooperative effort between the grant recipients, the other students involved and the University. The produce that is grown by students and sold to the university is a collective effort; one that would not be possible with out the contribution of the many students involved.

Associated Students' President Mac Hart sees much benefit in the Growers Grant Program and acknowledged that it "improves relationships with the community and achieves sustainability goals (for the university)."

The hope for the future of the Growers Grant program is to continue the legacy and involve more students' overtime who can continue the cycle of student growing and the localization of produce at Sonoma State University.

- Kayla Galloway

Top: Co-director Brandon Sanders was one of the inspirations behind the Growers Grant program. (Photo by Casey Marshall)

Middle, Jamal Edwards tills the soil at a plot in Penngrove donated by a nearby resident.

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