In the fall of 2019, Bon Appétit Management Company set out to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our Fellows program — a unique role for recent graduates that is part food-systems educator and part researcher — with a Student Activist Grant Contest, an opportunity to fund student-driven food sustainability projects on campuses across the country. Eventually 10 student organizations were selected as winners, with each receiving $1,000 to fund projects ranging from a large-scale composting program to a solar-powered ventilation system for a campus farm’s hoop house.
But one winner stood out. The Wheaton College Student Government Sustainability Committee had submitted a proposal for a new campus garden that ended up winning the “People’s Choice Award,” which was given to the student organization whose grant contest Instagram post received the most likes.
Now, a year and half after the Sustainability Committee won funding for the garden, their dream has become a reality. They began building the garden outside of the college’s Meyer Science Center at the height of the pandemic in April 2020, and since then have installed a total of 16 raised beds, which throughout the summer were home to tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, carrots, basil, beans, and much more. The Illinois heat provided a bounty of produce, which allowed for 15 separate donations to the People’s Resource Center, a local hunger-fighting organization. Long an aspiration of the Sustainability Committee, small-scale composting on campus was made a reality at the garden, too, with the installation of six compost bins, which in the future will serve as a drop-off point for food waste generated at the residence halls.
After the physical infrastructure of the garden was built, the Sustainability Committee took the winter to dream of the collaborations and possibilities that could stem from their new space. Already the garden has turned into a living laboratory, providing opportunities for class projects and academic research. Professor Christine Jeske, for example, is teaching her Food, Farms, and Culture class hands-on gardening skills, while Professor Nadine Rorem’s Creation Care class is experimenting with cold frames, and testing which materials best maintain heat for plants during frigid weather. So too, Wheaton’s Office of Ministry and Evangelism is using the garden to launch the Garden and Prairie project, which aims to educate students about local food production, food insecurity, and native prairie restoration.
Elsewhere on Wheaton’s campus, seedlings destined for the garden’s raised beds have been started indoors under grow lights, their little green sprouts promising another season of bountiful connections.
The garden’s benefits to the Wheaton community have been immense already, thanks to a little start-up funding, a lot of love and elbow grease, and a spirit of collaboration that provides an example for colleges across the country.