F.E.A.S.T. cultivates more than the land

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To the left of the Tree House classrooms, slightly down the hill from the Greek Bowl and next to the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) building, lies an inconspicuous pathway marked only by a small set of stairs tucked between thick green foliage. The path leads down into an area of campus unfamiliar to most: the FEAST garden.

Upon entry to the garden, sequestered away from the stresses of academia, one cannot help but relax in the sun-drenched natural space. To the left and right, chickens named Cleo and Thor cluck and strut about their enclosures. Picnic tables and a grill imply that the space has recreational potential, yet the 19 gardening beds at the garden’s center indicate the hard work that has transformed the space into what it is today and foreshadow the literal growth promised in the coming year.

The Food, Energy and Sustainability Team (FEAST) was created in 2008 as an outlet for gardening enthusiasts on campus to get together and learn the ins-and-outs of small-scale agriculture. In the following years the garden fell into a state of disrepair, according to current FEAST president Dylan Bruce (junior).

“It was really an unhealthy garden when it was handed over to us. It’s definitely a work in progress. We’re in revitalization mode,” Bruce said.

Undeterred, FEAST’s ten-member executive board, belonging to a diverse array of food and sustainability clubs around campus, crafted larger plans for the garden. Many of the e-board members cared for the garden during the summer heat to prime the space for the grand schemes they plan to implement throughout this academic year and beyond.

Bruce has been working closely with Campus Dining and recently-employed Sustainability Coordinator Emma Sorrel ’13 to achieve FEAST’s ambitious new goals. What was once a simple gardening club is seeking to become a bastion of sustainability and do-it-yourself culture on Occidental’s campus.

According to Sorrel, Occidental included environmental conservation and sustainability plans as core components of the 2012-17 Strategic Plan. The addition of Sorrel as sustainability coordinator and the generous $42,560 sustainability fund she oversees adds to Occidental’s reputation as a forward-thinking institution. However, Bruce and fellow e-board members — seniors Kai Foster, Anton Molina and Benjamin Clark — think that Occidental can do more, and that it must begin to practice what it preaches on a larger scale.

“Around the country our school has a reputation as a place of sustainability and environmental research, and we have to start backing up that image because in reality, we’re not that forward in the sustainability movement, even though we talk a big game. With FEAST, we’re trying to back that up,” Foster said.

The members of FEAST who are leading the charge for a sustainability coalition plan to bring more students and departments into the fold through strong leadership, conviction and education.

“We have physics, chemistry, biology and economics majors [in the club], each with their own unique skill sets,” Bruce said.

Each of these leaders contributes to a collaborative effort to educate the student body on issues of sustainability that may define the way that not only Occidental, but the nation, comes to live.

“The stuff we’re pushing is stuff that the whole country is going to have to start thinking about,” Foster said. “It’s not so far off in the future. It’s happening now, and the sooner we start turning our school into a sustainable environment, the better.”

Collaboration is at the core of FEAST’s efforts, as they aim to consolidate the disparate sustainability efforts conducted by individual groups around campus. They hope to create a sustainability coalition and to act as a sounding board for groups to promote and organize their environmentally-conscious events.

“We see a lot of really similar efforts for sustainability on campus, but they’re really disparate,” Bruce said. “For instance, there are even Greek organizations getting involved with a food reclamation drive in coordination with UEPI, and that’s something FEAST wants to get involved with … be kind of an umbrella for sustainability efforts on campus and beyond.”

The programming planned for the coming year reflects FEAST’s diverse membership and the steps its leaders — mostly upperclassmen — are taking to ensure that their long-term goals are accomplished. The programs, which will be initiated this year, correlate to the unique interests and skill sets of the e-board members. These sectors include food, energy, waste, water, cooking, native plants, garden management and data sustainability.

Landscaping and maintenance as short-term goals

Upon entering the garden, Bruce sees a squirrel hungrily eyeing the last of the summer’s tomato crop. Instinctively, he picks up a stick and gently tosses it toward the squirrel, scaring it into a nearby tree.

“Dylan’s got some pavlovian training going on with the squirrels right now; they’re vicious,” said Molina of Bruce’s efforts to keep the invasive species out of the garden.

Bruce’s deep ecological knowledge shines through as he begins a diatribe on the friendly squirrels that have become an unofficial mascot of sorts for Occidental.

“Everybody on campus thinks the squirrels are so cute, but they’re really a terrible, invasive species, brought to Southern California about forty years ago, and now they pretty much exist wherever there’s irrigation,” Bruce said. “They’re omnivorous, so they eat all the baby songbirds we’d otherwise have on campus, and they also eat our green tomatoes and butternut squash.”

As it turns out, Occidental is infested with many invasive species. Bruce would go on to point out the damaging effects of Ice Plant, a purple succulent flower with a vast root structure that contributes to the degradation of soil on campus.

He also spoke about the importance of landscaping with native plants, which would require less water to thrive in the dry climate of Southern California. However, ambitious landscaping projects like this are difficult to achieve under the current restrictions on the sustainability fund, which mandates that sustainability efforts produce a quantifiable economic return. Thus, things like low-flow shower heads and low-energy light bulbs can be easily implemented, but large-scale landscaping and gardening efforts are more difficult to get approved.

Tracking data on sustainability

Clark heads FEAST’s efforts for data sustainability in the garden. Data sustainability refers to FEAST’s initiative to keep detailed records of their planting, harvesting and crop rotation schedules.

In the club’s early years, crops such as peppers, tomatoes and potatoes were planted in the same beds year after year. Unbeknownst to the former leadership, their failure to rotate the crops regularly contributed to the presence of pathogens, benign to humans but deadly to young plants. As a result, the new members of FEAST were forced to tear up the old beds and begin anew.

After compiling fresh soil, rich with nutrients from composting efforts, they cleared the beds of weeds and lined them with felt and steel mesh to protect them from pests. Primed for planting, in Spring 2014 they planted a diverse array of crops, including peas, tomatoes, swiss chard, lettuce, peppers and others.

“To really optimize an agricultural situation, you really need to know what’s going to be planted and when, how long it’s going to be alive and when crops need to be rotated,” Clark said.

It is up to Clark to keep a detailed database of when and where these plants were grown, so that in growing seasons to come members will know which beds are safe for certain crops.

Tapping into solar energy

Teaching students to provide for themselves is essential to FEAST’s master plan.

“I think the do-it-yourself component is really important,” Molina said. “When it comes to sustainability and conservation, most people wake up and think, ‘What can I do about it?’ Well, we’re here to say, ‘This is what you can do.'”

Molina is referring to his own pet project under the FEAST umbrella, which deals specifically with installing solar energy in the garden, eventually moving toward implementation around campus on a broader scale.

“I’m working on a workshop related to energy,” Molina said. “The idea is to have people make their own solar usb chargers. First we’ll introduce people to electronics, to kind of demystify how it all works, circuit boards and all that, and to give people a measurable idea of how much energy it takes to charge a phone, and to show how we can get that energy from clean sources like the sun.”

Workshops such as this are only the beginning of clean energy efforts in the works from FEAST. Clark hopes to use the two existing solar panels in the garden as a source of clean energy for powering lights by attaching them to a generator. The generator could eventually be used to charge agricultural equipment, and even act as a place for food trucks to plug into during events in the garden.

Student events spread awareness and interest

Led by Foster, FEAST members hope to garner student interest by getting involved in cultural events around campus as well.

“For instance, we’re going to have a taco stand at the Groove at the Glen events this year featuring food grown in the garden,” Foster said. “We’re also working in conjunction with KOXY to hold student shows in the FEAST garden, and we’ll be hosting bi-monthly barbecues between the garden, Food Justice House and Court House.”

While these events will showcase the produce harvested from the FEAST garden, the club is also making efforts to beautify the space. Artists within FEAST will collaborate on a mural in the garden with local painters. Another of the club’s artistic endeavors was inspired by a donation of many old glass bottles. Bruce and his peers are thinking of the best way to use these bottles in a sculptural way, be it a wall or a bench, that highlight the way light refracts off of the worn glass.

These projects are part of an effort to bring students into the garden to both grow produce and find a space of respite.

“I think it will be a really cool spot for people to come hang out, do homework, whatever,” Clark said.

Making administrative progress

Though FEAST focuses largely on drawing students to the cause, as they will carry on the clubs efforts after the current leadership graduates, members are also working to make an impact on the administration and various departments throughout Occidental.

“This semester, we’ll be sending out letters to every department on campus asking them to sign a sustainability commitment,” Bruce said. “It will mostly just be a symbolic thing, but there will be a few specific things attached to it, such as differentiating between compost and recycling within their offices.”

These letters will be the first of FEAST’s steps to incite large-scale waste management changes at Occidental. The only waste-sorting facility on campus currently is in the Marketplace tray drop. FEAST hopes to create a system where separate receptacles for compost, recycling and trash can be placed in more areas around campus, and clearly marked so that students know what waste should go where, and why.

If such efforts were put into effect, the massive amounts of green waste hauled away in the trash could be put to use in the compost piles of the garden, resulting in higher yields from the garden. This could allow it to one day contribute some of its harvest to Campus Dining, a long-term goal echoed by many of FEAST’s leaders.

Starting next month, the club will provide Campus Dining with herbs from a separate garden located in a terraced area between the tennis courts and Facilities. Such a step for the club would not be possible without the cooperation of Facilities for allowing this space to be cleared for agricultural use.

However, for the members of FEAST, the project also begs the question of why more of the unused space on campus is not used for agricultural purposes. Projects of this nature are difficult to pass due to a lack of economic return, but Clark believes that by turning more unused land on campus into useful, visible agricultural space, the ideals of sustainability would become far more pervasive throughout the student body.

Thinking long-term

FEAST’s leaders’ goals extend beyond the year or two most of them will remain at Occidental.

“Petitioning is something that hasn’t been done very often at this school, and if that’s what it takes to get some of our projects done, for the benefit of the student body, we’ll do it,” Bruce said. “We’ll be out there in the quad trying to get as many people from as many groups on campus involved.”

The club has already instilled within its leaders the importance of bringing underclassmen into the sustainability effort. The club has open work days on Thursday and Saturday afternoons, and all students are welcome. Young leaders in FEAST are expected to learn on-the-go by shadowing their upperclassman mentors in the garden.

“We’ve got members coming in every day for different purposes, be it tending to the beds, harvesting, composting, whatever,” Clark said. “That daily work is being done by our e-board members mostly, but we’re encouraged to bring in an underclassman to do that work with us, so they can see what it takes to keep the garden going after we all graduate.”

Collaboration is crucial

One plant in particular, with massive healthy green leaves, draws Bruce’s attention in his walk through the garden.

“This is one of the highlights of the garden. It’s called Taro, it’s a Hawaiian plant used in a lot of traditional Hawaiian cooking,” Bruce said. “Some time soon we’ll be partnering up with WellFed and Hawaii club after we harvest it to cook some delicious, traditional Hawaiian dishes”

That statement is indicative of the widening breadth of FEAST’s influence on campus. Though some of the club’s goals may be difficult to accomplish in the short term such as changing the way Occidental landscapes or purchases food the members of FEAST are confident that by making small changes in the mindset of the student body, they will be able to raise awareness about these issues.

While members wish they could see these long-term goals come to fruition in the short term, they are also grateful for the opportunities they’ve been given, and will continue to mentor underclassmen to keep the ball rolling for years to come.

“We’re grateful for the support we receive from all of the departments we work with,” Bruce said. “From biology allowing us to nurture a few plants in the greenhouse, to physics helping us work out our solar plans, to Campus Dining for food events and composting, but especially thankful to Facilities for helping us get green waste for composting, and for being patient as us students learn the basics of effective landscaping and gardening.”

That learning process will continue under the leadership of Bruce and his peers, who hope to shed light on a flourishing corner of campus and ultimately create lasting change in the Occidental community.