In a back corner of Johnson C. Smith University, not far from the shadows of Charlotte’s skyscrapers, dozens of pale tilapia swim in bins of gurgling water. Right now, the fish are providing fertilizer for the kale, basil, cabbage and radishes growing nearby. When they’re bigger, they’ll provide food for the community.
The effort is part of a $475,000 initiative funded by The Duke Endowment to help Johnson C. Smith and three other schools – Davidson College, Duke University and Furman University – pursue interests in campus food and farming projects.
Johnson C. Smith is creating a Sustainability Village. Davidson is growing vegetables to supply dining hall and catering services. Duke has hired a Fellow to expand academic and community involvement in a campus farm. And Furman is focusing on interdisciplinary student-faculty research around agriculture.
“This is a topic that all four schools wanted to work on,” says David Holthouser, director of facilities and engineering at Davidson. “We are all doing slightly different things, but it’s adding up to very interesting and timely work.”
Ties to the Land
Davidson, Duke, Furman and JCSU have unique cultures, locations and priorities, but they share a connection to The Duke Endowment. When James B. Duke wrote the Indenture of Trust that created the Endowment in 1924, he included those four institutions as beneficiaries.
In 2008, the Endowment brought the schools together to explore ways to lessen their carbon footprints and reduce long-term energy costs. Teams of administrators, faculty and staff began sharing information and resources during workshops and campus visits.
The schools leveraged the $751,000 invested by the Endowment between 2008 and 2011 to fund sustainability projects totaling $3.85 million. Duke University, for example, used the Endowment’s grant of $150,000 to create a carbon offset project that received $500,000 in state and federal funding.
This new food and farming effort grew from that ongoing work around sustainability.
“In many ways, this work has a direct connection to our founder,” says Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke, the Trustee who chairs the Endowment’s Committee on Educational Institutions. “James B. Duke was born and raised on a farm in North Carolina, and he valued his strong ties to the land. I think he’d be pleased to know that a new generation agrees with him that this is an important topic.”
A Flourishing Movement
Across the country, there’s no doubt that more students are becoming interested in food and farming. There’s even an online community dedicated to helping students start farm plots and gardens. A project of Kitchen Gardeners International and the Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation, the site includes a garden planner, tips for growing and links to helpful websites.
“It often feels like there’s nothing we can do to change the system,” said one official with the project, “but growing your own food and being tired from a hard day’s work … is a positive way to be involved.”
Tavey Capps, the environmental sustainability director at Duke University, agrees. “Food and farming resonates with students because it doesn’t seem as removed as other things, such as renewable energy,” she says. “Food is something that everybody can get involved in.”
In March, staff members from Duke, Davidson, Furman and Johnson C. Smith came together in Charlotte for a two-day Food and Farming summit sponsored by The Duke Endowment. One panel discussion focused on food, faith and farming; another looked at the issue of food deserts. Ann Vileisis – the author of “Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get it Back” – spoke.
But the summit’s main goal was to give participants from each school a chance to report on their campus projects.
At Davidson, newly-acquired acreage is being turned into a farm that will grow vegetables to sell to the dining hall. Campus officials are working to develop a business model for other schools to learn from.
The college used its share of the Endowment grant to create a watering system for the row crops, install a walk-in cooler to keep produce fresh, build a passive solar greenhouse, and buy tools and fencing.
At Duke, a one-acre farm created in 2010 “feeds, educates and inspires the Duke community.” With student volunteers and a full-time farm manager, it grows more than 100 different varietals of fruits, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms.
Duke used its portion of the grant to hire the farm’s first Fellow to help with day-to-day operations and develop the educational mission. The grant is also funding site improvements, including a permanent outdoor classroom.
At Furman, a quarter-acre plot provides produce to the campus and to neighbors in Greenville, S.C. In the growing season, the university runs a farm stand and operates a Community Supported Agriculture program.
Furman is using its grant money to fund student-faculty research around food systems and sustainable agriculture. One project is collecting data on food deserts in Greenville County. Another is studying the South Carolina shrimp industry. A third is analyzing soil samples from two local farms.
Angela Halfacre, director of the David E. Shi Center for Sustainability at Furman, sees “cascading benefits and connections” coming from the schools’ work.
“The real beauty of this particular collaborative grant is that it falls under the guise of promoting sustainable agriculture in the Carolinas, but it is allowing for each school to play to its strengths and priorities and interests,” she says. “I think it’s a fantastic example of the ways in which institutions of higher education can create meaningful experiences for students, faculty and the community.”
Leaders at Johnson C. Smith share that feeling. Campus projects include organic garden plots, greenhouses and the aquaponic system. Under the guidance of Philip Otienoburu, a visiting professor of biology, the Sustainability Village is providing a learning laboratory for students – and nutritious food for neighbors.
“The student and staff excitement about this project has moved beyond the campus into the community,” says university spokesperson Sherri Belfield. “And we’re only getting started.”
Susan L. McConnell
Director, Higher Education