UGArden is a University of Georgia organization that teaches college students how to farm and harvest sustainably while providing fresh produce to organizations that eliminate local food insecurity like Grow It Know It and Campus Kitchen.
According to the UGA Engage page, the farm is about four acres, and it produces vegetables, fruits, shiitake mushrooms and an assortment of medicinal herbs. Although the farm isn’t large by commercial standards, it’s a fitting size to teach students farming basics while still providing extra food for the community.
Interning at the farm
Sierra King, a senior entomology major, is one of the 10 interns who helps run UGArden this semester. Throughout the week, King is on the farm harvesting, weeding or doing any other general farm work. But for King, working as an intern has been beneficial beyond just learning new skills.
“[It has] brought me a sense of in-person friendship that, during COVID-19, we haven’t had much of … and for a community scale, I feel fulfilled knowing in that, in a small way. I’m helping provide for food security in the Athens area,” King said.
JoHannah Biang, UGArden farm manager for the last decade, has managed countless sets of interns and is working on a doctoral degree about the impact the UGArden internship has on students. Besides acquiring a variety of skills and experiences to discuss in future job interviews, the internship also gives students an opportunity to learn about the origin of their food, she said.
“[The internship] allows students to understand where their food comes from and really gives them the knowledge and the power to be able to grow it if they wanted to,” Biang said.
From farm to garden
Both the Grow It Know It, or GIKI, program and Campus Kitchen receive fresh produce from UGArden to use in meals that are served throughout the Athens community.
Since the onset of COVID-19, GIKI and Campus Kitchen moved their operations from senior housing facility, Talmage Terrace, to UGArden where they keep the fresh produce and donated food sorted in refrigerators and freezers, said Campus Kitchen coordinator Andie Bisceglia.
According to its website, GIKI aims to address food insecurity and food waste by teaching kids about gardening through interactive and project-based activities. Besides student volunteers, GIKI draws from AmeriCorps VISTA members who serve for a year in a chosen community where they gain leadership experience.
AmeriCorps VISTA member Chelsey Willoughby said in reference to how GIKI currently runs, “[It’s] a mobile, we come to you, we teach you about gardening, we get your hands dirty and we share food with you.”
Besides acting as a home base for GIKI, UGArden also provides transplants, or baby plants, for the middle school gardens.
“UGArden coordinates with the schools around Clarke County to find out what plants they want to plant in their gardens, and Grow It Know It is like the liaison,” Willoughby said.
Before COVID-19, Willoughby went directly to Athens-Clarke County schools to train and assist the teachers in the school gardens using the transplants from UGArden. This year, however, things look a bit different.
GIKI took on a community approach in order to reach school children. Teachers will maintain the school gardens while GIKI members focus on developing community center gardens. UGArden currently provides transplants for the new community center gardens located at the East Athens Community Center, Rocksprings Park and Community Center and Lay Park Community Center.
“It’s kind of like an expansion of UGArden,” Willoughby said when referring to GIKI’s community gardens.
A day at the community garden is never exactly the same. Willoughby creates an engaging lesson plan for about 10-15 kids centered around a plant or a favorite meal to teach children where the food comes from and how it’s made.
“What we try to do is get them engaged with information either through games or cooking something,” Willoughby said.
Following the food
Another organization UGArden works closely with is Campus Kitchen. Campus Kitchen collects excess food from various stores and gardens around the community which student volunteers and interns use to prepare meals for 52 grandparents-raising-grandchildren families a week. One of the main sources of produce is collected on Mondays and Wednesdays from UGArden’s harvest, Bisceglia said.
“I think one of the most meaningful experiences we have is just working with the community,” Bisceglia said. “People are excited and she’s able to reconnect with her neighbors. Fresh food and good quality food have that effect on everyone.”
UGArden shows how crucial fresh, locally grown produce is to the UGA and Athens community by providing transplants to local middle schools, teaching young children about where their food comes from, introducing students to sustainable farm practices and providing meals for families in need.
“[As for the future of UGArden] I’m hoping we can continue increasing awareness and getting more students involved and letting students know that it is a resource for them,” Biang said.