By Jade Ruggieri
The West Virginia University Campus Food Garden is sprouting more growing space for an urban farm and learning center at the Abundant Life Greenhouse in Westover. While the Evansdale garden is 200 square feet, the Westover expansion boasts a budding 1,800 square feet.
Providing educational opportunities from seed to leaf, “The Garden” welcomes students and the community to learn about food barriers and create equal access to fresh produce for those struggling with food insecurity. Gardening is an introduction to understanding where food comes from and how it’s produced through a hands-on experience.
“A lot of people don’t think about it [food scarcity] until all of the sudden, your supermarket shelves are empty,” Nikki Byrne-Hoffman said. “We’re facing a multi-level system collapse in vegetable, dairy and meat production so it’s important for people to learn so we can locally sustain our food system.”
In the summer of 2021, as recipients of the Transform This! Challenge grant through the WVU Office of Provost, the WVU Department of Biology’s Nikki Byrne-Hoffman and Katrina Stewart wanted to enhance the grant’s theme to be a model of social equity since not everyone has access to fresh, healthy food. Thus, The Garden was born.
Working with community organizations such as First Presbyterian Church, which raised over $24,000 to support The Garden’s expansion project, more than 1,000 pounds of fresh produce is donated per year to local pantries such as the Rack at WVU, Pantry Plus More and Community Kitchen.
“What happens is that folks in the food pantries, when they do get produce, it’s leftover produce that is at or past expiration dates from grocery stores,” the Rev. Zac Morton of Frist Presbyterian Church said. “It’s important for people across socioeconomic backgrounds to have access to fresh, local produce to people who wouldn’t have access otherwise.”
From tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes and herbs in the summer harvest, to lettuce, spinach, carrots and peas in the fall, The Garden offers a variety of products to suit the need of food pantries.
Byrne-Hoffman said the goal for The Garden’s recent expansion is to be a model for micro and urban farming and build an outdoor learning center so people can learn about gardening, be outside, and model what a biodiverse farmette can look like in someone’s backyard.
Not only does The Garden create an abundance of produce, but Stewart said it also can serve as a therapy space. Byrne-Hoffman said The Garden gives a fresh breath of air that of only plants and nature can provide. Stewart also said, for about the past year, she and Byrne-Hoffman have kept camp chairs in their cars so that whenever they have a chance, they can enjoy a moment of peace.
Morton, too, finds a sense of well-being in The Garden.
“I like seeing people coalesce around the fact that this is a tangible way to really help meet a need in the community but to work together with other people to meet that need in the community — so that relational peace that you all are speaking to,” he said.
For those who have yet to try farm-fresh produce compared to what is found at a grocery store, the difference is drastic, they said.
“If you’re thinking about a grocery store tomato when they’re mass produced on these massive farms, they’re bred to have things like really tough skin or other features that can still arrive at a grocery store in good, visible condition but with a lot of those traits, there’s a trade-off between being able to be shipped nicely and look good and how flavorful or tasty they are,” Stewart said.
From building plant boxes and sheds to planting seeds, The Garden welcomes all volunteers. Although gardening can seem daunting, Stewart and Byrne-Hoffman are here to help ease that anxiety. To get involved, contact Byrne
“Don’t worry. We’re friendly people and we will teach you what you need to know, and you don’t need to be an expert. We will help people along the way and if you’ve got the desire to learn and be here then that’s great,” Stewart said.
“Just come and try it out. I promise you’ll have fun and learn something because there’s a job for everyone,” Byrne-Hoffman added.
Reflecting on how much the garden has grown since last year, Stewart said she didn’t know if she and Byrne-Hoffman realized they could make it grow this big so fast. She said it makes her feel good in her heart to know there was enough support to make it all happen.
“I was surprised by the huge outpouring of volunteers and community support,” Byrne-Hoffman added. “It’s really surprised me how easy it’s been to convince people that it [The Garden] is a good idea. It’s very simple; people are hungry – you just feed them.”