GroWing food advocates at GW

March 16, 2011

Hi, I’m Erin McCluskey, a gardener, apple-lover and student at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. About 18 million years ago, the author of this blog asked me to write about the Food Justice Alliance, the student organization I’m involved with at GW. Today, I am finally breaking down.

The Food Justice Alliance at GW was founded about 2 years ago this spring by a few members from the Fair Trade group on campus. Since that time, our group has started two gardens, introduced 3 colonies of honey bees, and started the much-needed discussions of food justice, quality, and sovereignty on GW’s campus.

We’re a pretty small group of about 7 people, some with leadership positions. And we’re a relatively new group with much potential for growth. Fortunately, we’ve found that these factors are not inhibitive to what we can accomplish. This past semester, we were awarded the best student group of the year for sustainability and have received press from around the District. People are taking notice of our momentum and are looking for ways to get involved.

One of the ways the community is getting involved is through the gardens we started on our two campuses, Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon. GroW Community Garden on the Foggy Bottom campus is our flagship project and was started in the Fall of 2009. We were able to start this garden through a Fulbright grant and donations from the GW School of Public Health and the Foggy Bottom community. One of the goals in planning this garden was to include the surrounding community as much as possible in the process. The garden itself was designed by the Landscape Design Graduate Program at GW and is maintained through a network of GW and DC volunteers. This spring, we challenged members of the GW chapter of Engineers Without Borders to design a drip irrigation system for the raised beds and established fruit and nut trees. This grew into a competition with four student teams competing. The winning design ranked high in its innovation, sustainability, and durability and the system is expected to be implemented in the coming weeks, just in time for the spring growing season! As the garden manager, I could not be more excited about this project. All the hours spent watering and water wasted will be spent on more important things like developing a children’s garden or playing with the worms in a vermaculture compost bin.

We donate about 80 percent of the produce we grow to a local soup kitchen. Located about a block away from the garden, Miriam’s Kitchen strives to bring healthy and fresh food to the people it serves. They have been involved in the planning of our garden beds this past season, requesting many a kale and tomato plant. The members of FJA volunteer regularly at the soup kitchen as well, creating a community joined in real and nutritious food. The rest of our harvest goes to the volunteers and our hungry compost barrel.

The garden on the Mount Vernon campus was established over the summer of 2010 and was designed by a class in the Landscape Design Program. This garden is rooted in ideas of permaculture, using native plants in synergistic arrangements. GW has featured this site as a demonstration of sustainability on campus and we hope it will be come a place to celebrate the region’s native plant life.

Also on “The Vern” are our famed honey bees. Sequestered behind a small chapel, these bee hives are invisible to any passerby. The results of their presence, however, is clear to the surrounding neighbors.  Residents have claimed a significant improvement in their garden production this past season. We have, I admit, exploited these bees for the educational value. Many people have dawned the space astronaut bee suit (including news crews and photographers) and watched the bees in action. We want people to recognize the crucial part bees play in all life and that currently there is a very serious bee population crisis due to Colony Collapse Disorder happening around the world. Through our volunteers we hope to address this issue by creating the next generation of urban bee keepers to ensure the survival of these vital pollinators. Our bees have also started a buzz around the Foggy Bottom community as well. The Biology Department started their own colonies on the roof of their building and have goals to start a bee research initiative. A local restaurant near campus is also interested in starting their own hives as is the International Monetary Fund (IMF) located next to campus. Riding the momentum, we are hosting “Colonial Swarm,” a community bee box painting day to get ready for our new additions (3 more hives!) coming next month.

To compliment our efforts on the ground, FJA frequently sponsors events to increase awareness and advocacy of food issues in the District and beyond. Once monthly we host “salons” in one of our volunteer’s residence. We designate a discussion topic for each month as a theme and create a themed potluck to match. For example, one month we discussed the issue of migrant labor in the agricultural sector; everyone brought their favorite Mexican dish. We even figured out a way for the University to pay for these salons through co-sponsorships! We watch documentaries, read each other articles and debate the issues. It’s just one of the ways we are trying to create a community around food. In addition to the salons, we have held seasonal cook off competitions, hosted speakers and held screenings of documentaries. For future advocacy, we hope to start a campaign addressing the problem of food deserts in DC.

What we hope to establish at GW are connections. To start, we are working to build the connection between the broader food system and how students understand their role in that system. Through events that promote healthy eating and food awareness, we strive for students to challenge themselves in adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. We also hope to address the current campus food system. We maintain an on-going relationship with Sodexo to continually improve campus dining by looking at where campus food comes from, how it is produced and lastly, how students consume it. Food Justice Alliance was born out of the need to address issues concerning food that were not really addressed before at GW.

GroW community gardens are the first student-led gardens at GW and they attract the interest of faculty, students, parents, and other members of the GW and surrounding community. One of the main things that makes our project different from others is the fact that were doing something visible. People can grasp the idea of our mission because they can see the kind of food we promote growing in our gardens. In addition, our outreach efforts have created a community of partners that use each other in addressing issues of sustainability. We have found that the “green” groups on campus were not really collaborating in their efforts and so we have sought and continue to formulate partnerships with other groups to maximize our impact in making GW more sustainable.

Through our advocacy we want people to understand the inequalities in the food system. These inequalities are especially apparent in DC. Real food is not finding the people that need it most. Often the poorest are left with the least nutritious option, which is a result of policy and inaction. Our projects seek to address these issues by making changes at the roots. Through our efforts, we promote the benefits of “real food” and its accessibility for all. Our gardens and bees continually demonstrate that healthy, sustainable, organic food can be accessible for all and that through food production communities can connect and grow.

Our future plans include starting a CSA drop off location on campus. This is already set in stone, we are just figuring out logistics. And we plan to open a student run food cooperative cafe, which I will post about later. This project seemed like a natural progression in our efforts in FJA and has gained a lot of momentum this past semester. You can check out our progress at http://gwfoodcoop.org/.

For more information on FJA’s current projects check out our blog at http://gwfoodjustice.org/ or email us at gwfoodjustice@gmail.com.

You can also check out our bee mentor’s website at Sweet Virginia: http://www.sweetvirginia.com/

Signing off,

Erin

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One Response to “GroWing food advocates at GW”

  1. Alex said

    Erin-

    You are truly inspirational and so is the work you and others have done at GW and in the surrounding community. Glad Sig could provide yet another forum for you to disseminate information about your projects, its accomplishments and mission.

    I would love for a traveling organization or a local one near San Joaquin, a very impoverished agricultural community, to come educate residents, set up a community garden, bee colony, etc. We already have a booming farmers’ market stocked with local food producers but I still feel there is a disconnect between the vast array of food production in the San Joaquin Valley and what ends up on the plates of farmers and residents.

    If only I had a green thumb like you and Signe! Looking forward to following your efforts…

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