When Abby Benson started college three years ago, she didn't know anything about growing her own food. Now a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., she helps lead STOGROW (short for "St. Olaf Garden Research and Organic Works"), the student-run, on-campus farm that supplies local, organic ingredients to the college cafeteria. She's also now a self-described "food snob."
"I judge every vegetable that I put in my mouth, as it never compares to the produce from STOGROW," Benson says. "I have learned to structure a diet around eating locally and sustainably."
She's not the only one. Because the college's food service vendor, Bon Appètit Management Company, uses fresh, local produce in every cafeteria meal, "Many students have been influenced to change their eating habits for the better," Benson says.
Founded in 2005 by two students, STOGROW is a self-sustaining, student-run business that rents farmland from the college. Bon Appètit has a standing agreement to purchase all the produce harvested at STOGROW. As a result, student gardeners can get their hands dirty learning about agriculture, and everyone on campus can enjoy fresh, local produce.
"Having a student-run farm on campus reinforces the fact that food is produced somewhere and doesn't just come from a store," says Peter Abrahamson, Bon Appètit's general manager.
The garden operates with five paid student workers per growing season and recruits student volunteers during harvest time. The experience of producing their own food is eye-opening for many of the students involved in the garden.
"Students who have taken nibbles from the goodies on the farm can taste the difference, and sometimes they are shocked or amazed at how good fresh vegetables can really taste," says Nichole Rohlfsen, a student gardener. "Students who help volunteer are so eager to get to the cafe and taste the tomatoes that they picked."
For those who work at the garden full-time during the summer, the experience is life changing. "I take great pride in being a producer of quality and healthy food for my classmates, professors and Northfield neighbors," says Kristin Johnson, STOGROW's 2008 lead gardener. "The independence and self-sufficiency gained by learning a dying art in America is indescribable. To learn [the science of agriculture] from others and share it with more is a truly satisfying feeling."
Story by Nancy Mann Jackson, a food writer in Florence, Ala. Recipes courtesy of St. Olaf's College and Bon Appètit Management Company.