Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

Eat Fresh: The Campus Garden

Tucked away on Washington and Lee University’s back campus, just off one of the many trails that crisscross the woods, lies the University’s campus garden. Planted with kale, tomatoes, basil, and other fresh vegetables, it, in combination with locally-sourced food, provides about 20 to 25 percent of the food served in W&L’s dining hall.

Michael Zanie, who joined W&L as director of dining services in 2014, has overseen a growing partnership between dining services and the campus garden and hopes to put even more fresh produce on students’ tables as the garden expands. Local, organic vegetables are “more healthy and certainly better from a carbon footprint standpoint,” he said.

“Students should feel connected to the food they are eating,” said David Khoshpasand, dining marketing manager, whom Zanie hired last September. Khoshpasand is developing a branded logo to help identify garden produce. “When you see that logo on the menu or the bar you know that it came from the garden. It reinforces the idea,” he said. Khoshpasand hopes this knowledge will inspire students to volunteer and take part in growing the food they are eating.

The garden also has a full-time manager, Nicole Poulin, who came on board in January 2015 to expand the garden’s use, especially for production purposes. She is focusing on crops with a high yield to get as many fresh vegetables into the dining hall as possible.

“When I was in college, I didn’t think too much about where my food was coming from,” Poulin said. She wants students to be more aware of their food’s nutritional value, and its path to their table.

The garden began as an educational space and continues to serve as one. In 2001, professors in the biology department used it for scientific research. In 2008, they partnered with the W&L Campus Kitchens Project — a student organization that addresses local hunger — and dining services to create a joint research and community garden.

The biology department took on most of the responsibility for managing the garden and organizing the student-composting crew, and most of the produce supplemented the Campus Kitchens hunger-relief programs. This summer, much of the produce supports the Summer Backpack Program, which collects unused food from various sources and distributes it in five different community spaces around Rockbridge County. Clients gather what they need by selecting items from stations of bread, pasta, canned goods and fresh produce.

“It’s nice to have some additional produce for the Backpack Program that’s not from Walmart,” said Ryan Brink ’18, who is a Campus Kitchens summer intern.

Not only does W&L’s garden grow produce for hunger-relief programs, it also provides a space for local children to learn and explore. Campus Kitchens summer interns teach weekly nutrition lessons for three different summer camps. “The first nutrition lesson was a scavenger hunt,” said Brink. “They enjoyed that a lot — they got to run around and explore.” The children, mostly K-6, participate in a nutrition or sustainability lesson and are then set loose to help in the garden. They weed, water, explore and — if possible — harvest and taste.

Everything in the garden is designed with sustainability in mind. The stakes, bricks and metal spirals are reused materials from W&L construction. The vegetables grow in soil enriched with compost from dining leftovers. “It’s a better way to garden,” explained Poulin. “It’s better for the environment, which is what organic farming is all about.”

Even the garden space itself is recycled. “At first, it was kind of a scorched-earth area,” said one of the original planters, Bill Hamilton, professor of biology. Much of the original garden site was filled with mined-out clay from campus construction projects, which had very little organic matter necessary for plants to flourish. Adding compost from the dining hall allows vegetables to grow, providing a sustainable method of replenishing the soil.

As Hamilton noted, “Compost goes from the dining hall to the garden, which grows food that goes back to the table. It closes the loop nicely.”

– by Jinae Kennedy ’16