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Natural Awakenings Northwest Florida

Better Health Takes Root in UWF Community Garden

Apr 06, 2016 12:11PM ● By Allsion Gormon

Student Volunteers at the University of West Florida Garden Club

At the bottom of every email Chasidy Fisher Hobbs sends, just below her signature, is a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never underestimate the power a few dedicated citizens have to change the world. Indeed that is all that ever has.” Hobbs, an instructor of earth and environmental sciences, is herself one of a group of dedicated citizens, mostly college students, hoping to change the world from a small patch of land at the University of West Florida.

In fact, the community garden was founded by UWF students. With the help of Dr. Gregory Tomso, associate director of the university’s Kugelman Honors Program, they established it in 2009 as a site for researching and teaching organic gardening techniques. Like Hobbs, who helps Tomso manage the garden, the students recognized that Americans are dangerously disconnected from their food supply.

“No matter what you study, no matter what your religion, your heritage, your gender, your age, the one thing we all have in common is that we require nutritious food to survive,” Hobbs says. “We have become so far removed from our food system that most of us could not provide for ourselves should the grocery store disappear.”

Of equal concern, she says, is the unwholesome state of America’s industrial food system, whose output provides very few of the essential vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy body. 

“We live in a fast-food culture that contributes to our current epidemic of food-related illnesses,” Tomso notes. “Growing food locally, organically and sustainably is one way to reconnect with food as an important part of our everyday lives that is intimately tied to the health of our bodies and our environment.”

The goal, Hobbs says, is to demystify the gardening process. “We want to do our part to teach people just how easy it is, with the proper tools and a willingness to get a little dirty, to grow your own food.”

In the seven years since those first crops were planted, the community garden has blossomed. Roughly 200 students volunteer in the garden each year, Tomso says, and individuals and groups from the Pensacola community travel to the UWF campus to work in the garden and learn about organic gardening techniques. The garden’s executive team is advised by a community board comprised of eight local business leaders and gardening experts.

The site has expanded its role as an outdoor learning center for students. Several classes on campus now integrate their curricula with the garden, and Hobbs says many of her students choose to do most or all of their required service learning hours there. 

“In fact, the current officers of the UWF Garden Club started as volunteers earning service learning hours,” she says. “They enjoyed the experience so much that they have stuck around and are quickly becoming amazing leaders at the garden.” 

That trend make sense, Tomso says. “Several studies have shown that students learn more deeply when they make strong connections between the classroom and the realm of everyday life. At UWF, the community garden is an energetic hub of active, engaged learning, connecting students to the physical and intellectual challenges of growing food, sustaining healthy soil and protecting the environment.”

Gabriela Grosse, an office administrator in UWF’s Department of History, has been involved with the garden only since last August, but now she’s part of its executive team, with a working knowledge of indigenous plants, eco-friendly wildlife control and when to plant and cultivate various crops. 

Perhaps her favorite thing cultivated in the UWF garden is community spirit. “There are so many different types of people involved with this garden,” she says, “yet we all have a common goal to work toward, which fits into the mission of the garden in many ways.”

Grosse says her involvement in that mission has made her a strong advocate for organic gardening among family and friends. “I try to encourage them to eat healthy, to respect and be concerned about the environment, and to help others learn to grow their own food, whether it is in their own backyard or through an organization such as this one,” she says.

Now UWF’s community garden is attracting more than people, thanks to an ongoing partnership with the US Peace Corps, who last year donated a pollinator garden to the university. The garden is designed to provide a safe and sustainable habitat for pollinating insects, especially honeybees. 

And further projects are in the works, Tomso says. 

“We are currently expanding our mission to include not only organic food, but also native plants, a rain garden, a kitchen garden and a wildflower garden,” he says.

Hobbs says a shaded teaching pavilion will be built with funds donated by the university’s Student Government Association, and the garden’s executive team has requested funds from the Student Green Fee to build a rainwater collection system and double the growing space available to anyone interested in getting involved with the community garden.

From all indications, that interest is growing like the garden itself.

“The garden at UWF is a site of learning and exploration where students and community members can discover a whole world of living organisms, from soil microbes to native plants to organic fruit trees and vegetables,” Tomso says. “We welcome curious learners of all ages who want to be a part of something exciting, something larger than themselves.”

For more information about the UWF community garden, email Dr. Gregory Tomso at [email protected]

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