Who knew such a small plot of land could grow so much produce?
A 160-square-foot garden space shared by a greenhouse and raised beds at Georgia Highlands College’s Cartersville campus is responsible for growing, as of Thursday, 327 pounds of produce that’s been donated to the Charger Food Pantry, started in 2016 to meet the needs of GHC’s food-insecure students.
“The problem of food insecurity is increasingly on the radar of many college administrators,” Director of Student Support Services Angela Wheelus said. “Students are sometimes finding it difficult to focus or even stay in class, so if we can remove one of those barriers by providing access to food, then that’s what we need to do here at GHC. Many of our students are nontraditional — supporting families and working full time while attending college. Food insecurity cuts across all demographics. That’s where GHC’s Charger Food Pantry comes in.”
Started by the faculty and staff of the natural science and physical education division, the garden has added another element of nutrition to the pantry that wasn’t available to food-insecure students before.
“The students are amazed that this is made available to them,” Wheelus said. “Seeing the fresh produce is not what they expected when they came to the pantry over the summer, and to receive it was such a blessing. Professors Jackie Belwood and Joseph Collins have been so gracious with combining biology projects with the Charger Food Pantry, where our faculty, staff and students receive the blessing of their labor.”
Greg Ford, dean of natural science and physical education, said the goals of the gardening project were “always to support academic research opportunities for faculty and students as well as to address food insecurities and the needs of the Charger Food Pantry.”
“My job and the focus of GHC is student success,” he said. “Typically, when we think about student success, we think of academic factors such as student intelligence, the quality of the instruction and the rigor of the curriculum. However, there are a number of non-academic barriers we have to consider, such as socioeconomic, health and food insecurity. ... This includes low-income homes or homelessness, where meal sizes are reduced or meals are skipped as well as inadequate access to nutritional options like fresh fruits and vegetables. These factors and others lead to hunger.”
Each of GHC’s five campuses now has a walk-in food pantry fully stocked with personal items and nonperishable foods like peanut butter, tuna and spaghetti sauce for its students, but the fresh produce currently is only available on the Cartersville and Floyd campuses, Wheelus said.
“Every Tuesday and Thursday on the Cartersville campus, Mr. Collins [the greenhouse manager and GHC laboratory coordinator] gathers the produce to have it available in bins of fresh produce such as cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini for anyone to take home in paper bags that are provided,” she said. “It has been such a blessing.”
Ford said he “could not be more thrilled” that the garden has produced more than 300 pounds of vegetables for the pantry, “and the number is growing every day.”
“The garden continues to thrive, and we are continuing to harvest potatoes, tomatoes, snap peas, summer squash, green beans, okra, carrots, cucumbers and peppers,” Ford said. “In the coming weeks, we will begin harvesting watermelons, which are now starting to propagate.”
Students won’t have to wait until next year for more fresh vegetables, as a fall/winter garden will be planted as soon as the summer garden stops producing.
“This fall, we will plant broccoli, carrots, winter squash, lettuce, spinach, kale and continue to grow some of our warm-weather crops inside the greenhouse into the winter,” Ford said.
Collins said he hopes to eventually grow the produce inside the greenhouse year-round, giving the pantry a steady supply at all times.
“We try to grow produce that we think people will enjoy and will also provide a good value,” he said in a press release.
Students are allowed to “shop” for 12 items at least once a week — no questions asked — at the Cartersville, Floyd, Marietta, Douglasville and Paulding student support services offices anytime Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Wheelus said.
“Of course, if there is a need or situation that arises, the student is welcome to take more than the limit,” she said, noting the pantry has provided roughly 10,000 pounds of food to 746 students since opening. “Our desire is to help remove barriers that would keep the student from succeeding in the classroom by providing access to food. We are here to serve in that capacity.”
But the fresh produce is “over and above” the limit of staple items the student chooses and is an “added blessing where they take what they need and what their families would enjoy,” she said.
Ford said plans call for expanding the gardening program to each of GHC’s sites, and faculty and staff members are working with the Green Highlands student group to determine the best locations for additional gardens, with the next one being planned for the Floyd campus.
For those who have been involved in planning and planting the garden, maintaining the greenhouse and harvesting the vegetables, the effort to grow produce for the pantry has been a successful labor of love.
“The garden has been a tremendous success on several fronts,” Ford said. “First, the greenhouse planning, design and construction kindled collaboration between a number of faculty, staff and students and several community partners. Next, the program stimulated excitement around potential for educational use, research opportunities and outreach. We will be growing some of our own supplies that will be used in teaching labs, including several of the vegetable varieties and elodea plants. Finally, with the addition of the raised beds, we are now able to address food-insecurity issues amongst the students and other members of the college community.”
Ford credits the success to the “hard work and dedication” of Collins and his team.
“Joseph is continually looking for ways to improve product selection and harvest yields,” he said. “Gardening is not easy work but is very rewarding, and that’s why I think Joseph and the team have made it a success.”
He added he hopes the garden will serve as a model for “what can be accomplished with a minimum budget in a relatively small space through determination, dedication [and] ingenuity as well as a good amount of sweat equity.”
Now that the college is providing home-grown produce to the pantry, Collins and Ford said they are looking for simple recipes that will allow students to turn the fresh ingredients into easy-to-make meals.
“Our next goal is to assist students with what to do with the produce we are providing,” Ford said. “We will be soliciting recipe ideas from members of the college community and making them available to users of the food pantry. We have already been approached by several members of the faculty and staff eager to share their recipes for preparing meals. I am amazed to see how the college has rallied around this project and how it has taken off. At the same time, we have not strayed from our mission, which is to always look for innovative ways to address and improve student success.”
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