Food For Thought And Sustainability

By: By Isabella Palomo

“Principles of sustainability are embedded within Marymount’s Catholic heritage.”

Dr. Susan Agolini with harvest (Photo from AFAC)

Principles of sustainability are embedded within Marymount’s Catholic heritage, which calls for all to promote stewardship of the Earth. Efforts toward a more sustainable campus are being made at Marymount and something that is being acted upon by the Food for Thought student club.

Susan Agolini, assistant professor of biology and physical science founded Food for Thought club in 2016, along with student Brenna Cook class of 2018. Biology classes require doing community service and Agolini noticed that many students at the very last minute where handing in blood or running a 5k to raise money.“It did not seem that meaningful to me, and I thought it would be more fun to do something together as a group that would be more impactful and meaningful,”said Agolini. She reached out to the Arlington Food Assistance center (AFAC), which provides nutritious food to 2,300 area families every week. AFAC started the Plot Against Hunger Program, which called on local gardens in the community to donate some of their produce to them. AFAC encouraged Dr. Agolini to start a garden at Marymount. Agolini said,

“It took a little while to convince Marymount that starting a garden was a good idea, I got a lot of pushbacks saying no no we cannot do this.”

One of her students Brenna Cook was an honors student, and in the honors programs they are allowed to do honors tutorials, and she worked in getting this garden started,“She said this could become a student club and if it was we could get founding,”said Agolini. In the meantime, since they where receiving resistance, they started the student club and volunteering at another garden in St. Andrews Episcopalian Church. They formed a collaboration with the gardeners of St. Andrews Church who where also part of the plot against hunger. They started a connection with the Arlington friends of urban agriculture, which is a group that is very interested in sustainability, and promoting agriculture in urban settings.“That’s really where the sustainability comes in with us, when you start putting gardens in urban settings, that is really where sustainability is really going to happen,” said Agolini.

Harvesting the “Garden with Purpose”. (Photo from Marymount University)

Food for Thought Student president, Kathryn Ryan said,“Urban agriculture is a role we want to play with Food for Thought, by promoting gardening we can lower carbon footprint by eliminating grocery store and transportation aspect.”

The club has been trying to promote urban agriculture by doing basil hand outs around Earth day. Ryan said, “what we do is start the basil plants, we grow them a little bit, we gather them, we go to metro stops and just hand them in to the community.” People in the community get the plant, instructions on how to take care of it, and they also give out a recipe to make pesto.

Image courtesy of Dr.Agolini

In Spring of 2018 Dr. Agolini and Brenna Cook finally got approval to get the garden in, they had three raised beds that first year, and donated all the produce to AFAC. This year Food for Thought got a grant to put in a fourth bed and are also doing a collaborative project with the ceramics department at Marymount. When the garden was started, they took the only sunny spot they gave them but they soon realized that there was no water around. Agolini said, “Master gardener suggested to start “Ollas”, which is a clay pot, you put water on it and if the pot is in the ground the soil will take as much water as it needs, so the plants will grow their roots, it is really efficient and really sustainable.” Ceramics professor Joe Hicks has done 12 “Ollas” with different materials, and it doesn’t matter what they are made off, they are all working. They now want to bring that same technology to other local schools, because it is efficient, and saves a lot of water.

COVID-19 presented the food for thought club with a challenge.

“This year when the pandemic hit, AFAC said that they would no longer support the program, they decided that they would rather buy the produce, so they did not want to take any more food donations,”said Agolini.

Packaging “Garden with Purpose” harvest. (Photo from Marymount University)

Meanwhile, they knew that there where lots of people that wanted to help the community, they also knew that because of COVID, food insecurity was going to go up dramatically, so many people lost their jobs, and so many kids that normally got meals at school where not going to be at school and getting food anymore. AFAC decided that they would no longer support the plot for hunger, so they all decided they would do something.“if you think about it, there’s always a solution, you know that you can always sort or turn something bad and do something good.” Said Agolini.

Thank you to Marymount University, they where able to get the Community Engagement Grant from the Saints’ center for Service. Through a collaboration between Marymount, Arlington Friends of Urban Agriculture,Virginia Cooperative Extension and other former members of the Plot Against Hunger Committee, which included St. Andrews Episcopal Church

Garden and Rock Spring Church, they were able to take in produce from the different partners, found pantries that would accept donations, took the food in, packaged it, and took it out to different pantries. They donated just the gardens itself, six thousand pounds of produce, and in combination with the USDA farms, around twelve thousand pounds of produce were able to be passed to the community.

Student Stefanie Socher has been working with Dr. Agolini in the garden every Monday and Thursday. She originally started because she had to get up to 60 hours of community service. Socher does not have a car, so she had to find a way to do something that was around campus. Socher said, “We continued to provide the food even though this partnership did not work out any more, the club and Dr. Agolini really wanted to continue that and find the different ways to do it.” Ryan said, “Some of the partnership we had has been limited because AFAC is not accepting donations at the moment, Dr Agolini has been great by finding ways to get around that, and we are still partnered with the St. Andrews plot for hunger.”

Food for Thought club has allowed students be involved with something that is bigger than what is going un right now with the pandemic. “The garden is a reminder that you can still make a difference during a pandemic” said Ryan. “It a nice break because there was nothing that we could do about the pandemic, but I knew that we could grow produce”, said Agolini.

Food for Thought is also an opportunity for students to get outside and relax in nature. Ryan said,“Gardening is so relaxing, specially with everything going on it can be very stressful, so just being outside and working in the garden is so relaxing, you feel accomplished when you garden and then you harvest the squash, the kale and everything that we have been growing, knowing that we are making a difference by doing this, and donating it to people in need is a good feeling.”Socher said,

“Gardening is pretty therapeutic, and good way to connect with other students that go, it’s a time to relax, chat and at the same time do something meaningful and purposeful, since it will go to local churches that will give it to homeless people so they will have fresh food and not only packaged food.”

Students planting in the Garden of Hope during Charter day. (Photo from Food for Thought instagram page)

Food for Thought has given students at Marymount the opportunity to volunteer at the St. Andrews Garden. Dr. Agolini usually organizes so that School Athletes come at the end to help to clear out the whole garden. The people who run the St. Andrews garden always have a big cookout at the end as a thank you to the players and the Marymount students. “Partners enjoyed interacting with the students to the point where they’ve become really dependent” said Agolini. This year students kept going to the St. Andrews garden, but when COVID numbers started going up on campus, with some couple of outbreaks that happened, they made the decision not to have students go back. Agolini said, “I was too worried that our students could contaminate them and they are more vulnerable population.”

Food for Thought club hopes to make more connections with the community, and Dr. Agolini is

working on possibly doing a grant, to try and bring the “Ollas” technology to the surrounding schools. “some of the schools in Arlington also have gardens there and I would love to use our garden as sort of a center for learning,” said Agolini.

Meanwhile, Marymount offers opportunities for students to learn more about sustainability. Nancy Engelhardt is who founded the sustainability minor, and the effort they have at the department is to get the issues in front of students, and get them thinking about sustainability. Eric Norton is a professor at the sustainability minor department at Marymount University.Norton said

“The aim is to get students from around Marymount, thinking about how these questions will impact and influence their life’s and their careers moving foreword, its hard to predict what your career is going to be like, the important thing is that sustainability is a vital question for everybody that is alive in the 21stcentury.”

“Students can get out there and pressure the administration to use, develop and maintain alternative sources of energy for campus,” said Norton. Helping in the garden is also a way students can go out and make Marymount more sustainable. Ryan said “When you are growing produce, the environmental impact you have is substantial because you are eliminating that carbon footprint.” Norton said, “Think about the energy you are using yourself to make our campus community more sustainable, live that example and encourage others to do so.” “If I where a student at Marymount, questions that I would be asking the administration about, is what plans it has to transition into an energy economy that is going to be sustainable, we all know the current situation is not going to last, so how is Marymount university contributing to that effort,” said Norton. Marymount University chooses to think of sustainability in general, as balancing ecological, societal, and economic environments, in ways that allows needs to be met without compromising the environment for future generations.

Since 1988, the Arlington Food Assistance Center remains dedicated to its simple but critical mission of obtaining and distributing groceries, directly and free of charge, to people living in Arlington, VA, who cannot afford to purchase enough food to meet their basic needs.



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