From Farm to Fork: Contemplating students’ needs

Opinion by Jenny Rempel
May 1, 2012, 12:28 a.m.

From Farm to Fork: Contemplating students' needsIn less than three hours last Friday, two friends and I harvested snap peas, red leaf lettuce, cilantro, kale, chives and dozens of dwarfish carrots whose size belied their sugar content. We pulled up all the old plants and a few weeds, double dug the beds to aerate the soil and planted a smattering of new seeds. The garden beds were prepped and ready for new growth.

Harvesting, weeding, digging and sowing offered me a chance to reflect. Gardening provides a space to consider what I am actually learning while at Stanford, what I value and where I seek to create value in the world. Working the land — even a small patch of it — offers a time for inward contemplation.

But growing food does not need to be a solitary, meditative activity. Weekly pizza parties on the Stanford Community Farm are joyous, noisy, laughter-filled, lip-smacking affairs. It’s hard to shovel a truckload of compost next to someone without sharing stories and forming a casual friendship. These work parties feature undergraduates majoring in everything from earth systems to religious studies, graduate students in business as well as sociology, staff members, faculty members, families with children and, of course, pizza. (Chickens usually make an appearance, too.) More than learning about soil structure or the proper technique for turning a compost pile, these work parties are a chance to build community.

Sadly, only a tiny fraction of the Stanford population has had the opportunity to reflect, grow and build community in this cherished space. Plans are underway to expand the campus education farm, which is currently less than an eighth of an acre, but the development of a larger space for food systems education has been stalled for several years.

Breaking ground on a new farm will be a meaningful step forward for the growing community of individuals interested in food. Current farming classes are routinely oversubscribed, and Farm Educator Patrick Archie is in high demand. Undergraduate and graduate students interested in food would like a larger space for hands-on, experiential learning, and students and faculty alike would love receiving resources enabling them to pursue projects in the food sphere, from nutrition to social justice to obesity to business ventures. When compared to Berkeley, UC-Davis and even Yale, Stanford pales in its food education.

I am beyond grateful that Stanford has even a small plot of land where I get to dirty my hands and marvel at the wonders of plant growth and food production. But I am routinely confronted by opportunities for improvement.

Food unites communities and provides a meaningful context for examining and applying topics as wide-ranging as physics (crucial to soil structure), economics (central to for-profit and non-profit foodie ventures) and ethics (important for everything from farmworkers’ rights to meat consumption). The acts of farming and cooking each provide a beautiful space for contemplation. Yet when $4.2 million flows into the University for the establishment of a “contemplative center,” the trustees have agreed to build a second art museum.

I am deeply grateful for the alumni donations that have made my Stanford experience possible. In light of ongoing mental health and wellness struggles on campus, I am also grateful that University officials recognize the need for spaces that encourage reflection and balance. And I am thrilled to see greater support of the arts on an engineering campus known for its “Get Rich U” entrepreneurial mindset. But I can think of many more strategic uses of $4.2 million than a new art museum.

Through classes on philanthropy and my own activism I have learned an important message: New initiatives will not be truly successful unless the recipients are partners in the planning process. Lest this be too difficult, it is important to at least listen to grant recipients’ needs and wants. Without listening, it is impossible to be a strategic philanthropist, because you cannot simply intuit the needs of a community that is not your own.

Because I know my foodie dreams of a production farm in the Santa Cruz mountains are shared by only a handful of my peers, I asked around about how students might spend $4.2 million. In speaking with my peers, I’ve heard recurring themes. Stanford students want the University to focus more on wellness, with an emphasis on mental health. They want to build community. That $4.2 million could have funded expanded mental health services on campus, or endowed more diverse faculty positions, or improved and expanded upon existing community centers. Obviously my subset of friends is biased toward the progressive activist community, and I’m sure there are individuals who would be equally happy if more funding was spent on new athletic facilities or a series of concerts like the upcoming Frost Revival. But I highly doubt a second art museum is at the top of many students’ lists of needs and wants — particularly given the existing under-appreciation of our current art museum.

For a fraction of that $4.2 million, we could easily provide a space for contemplation on a new campus farm. And donors would have the pleasure of knowing this is something students really want and need.


What would you do with $4.2 million? Let Jenny know at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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