Do University Farms Truly Teach Sustainability?

Do University Farms Truly Teach Sustainability?

Do University Farms Truly Teach Sustainability?

The number of student food gardens has risen dramatically at prestigious urban and suburban colleges, but these campus farms should be wary of overstating their impact.


Yale and Princeton universities offer $8,000 meal plans, but they also grow their own vegetables. Among prestigious urban and suburban colleges, they aren’t alone. The student-run-farm model, often integrated into university programming, promotes the production and consumption of sustainable food. This includes non-rural settings, where the number of student food gardens has risen dramatically. Since the 2010s, Harvard and Columbia have grown potatoes, squash, and onions in small plots scattered around campus. The Vanderbilt University Community Garden, established in 2018, has a greenhouse, while Yale cultivates an acre of land for plants, animals, and make-from-scratch pizza.

When elite schools build garden spaces, they’re not growing food for food’s sake. Over 40 percent of the food purchased for Princeton’s dining halls—including produce—is local, and all burgers on campus are a blend of mushrooms and grass-fed beef. At Yale, a typical dining hall menu might feature a Cajun portobello sandwich with avocado and remoulade, toasted potato buns, and massaged kale salad, and quinoa with seven vegetables. Wild salmon comes from Alaska; milk and bread are made in Connecticut.

With a range of organic and low-carbon options already at hand, it’s not surprising that students who work at college farms, such as Princeton senior Sam Vasen, see their food garden as primarily educational: “It takes kids from very academic backgrounds and allows people to mess around, play in a more natural way,” Vasen described. “It wouldn’t act as a substitute for going to the supermarket.”

A farm manager for the Princeton Garden Project, Vasen is one of five student workers responsible for organizing events at the garden, and onboarding new apprentices. The Garden Project, Vasen said, refers to a one-and-a-half-acre plot—just north of the university’s Forbes residential college—that aims to produce food and introduce the community to sustainable gardening. Besides harvesting and distributing crops like corn, green beans, and melons to local food banks, Vassar mentioned sustainability events and dinners that prioritize a part-action, part-dialogue approach to advocacy. “What we have might not necessarily exist outside of Princeton, but the hope is that we are teaching people and empowering people to learn.”

Anna Parrott, a first-year student, started volunteering on the Pomona College Organic Farm in her first month of undergraduate studies. With banana trees and cacti lining its perimeters, Pomona’s farm is as visually appealing as it is functional. The one-and-a-half-acre space, tucked behind a parking lot, raises chives, nasturtiums, vegetable staples, and fruit trees, like mulberry and kumquat, Parrott said. She views the farm’s work as more theoretical, including its architectural design. “It’s presenting ideas about sustainability.” A superadobe dome in the center of the farm helps show students a new option for construction, she said. “It exists as a learning space first and foremost.”

If the American liberal arts college is a hub for fluid academic exchange, schools see their gardens as an extension of the physical university, where research, dialogue, and well-spokenness take precedence. Theresa Ong, assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, called the organic farm there a “living laboratory” for students to test hypotheses that would be less practical for traditional farmers to implement. “When they hired me, they were hoping to fill a gap in the interests of students to learn more about farming and agriculture and the resources the school had,” Ong told me. She teaches an agroecology class out of the farm, quickly moving students into the field to experience lessons hands-on.

With the largest endowment per student in the United States, Princeton benefits from high investment returns and low endowment tax. It has recently expanded its financial aid program, through which families earning less than $100,000 pay nothing. “We do have the resources and opportunities for funding,” Food Systems Project Specialist Gina Talt told me while driving to Princeton’s Seed Farm, a new three-and-a-half-acre agricultural space overseen by the university’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.

Metropolitan gardens are clearly limited in size and output. The question is whether farm models at privileged institutions—equipped with internal funding, dining halls, students to hire—risk presenting sustainable food practice as an easily mimicked ideal. “It’s good to expose students to these types of initiatives they might find out in the real world,” said Talt. “We’re not a good example of what it means to be a small-scale farmer that needs to rely on loans for farming equipment.”

Since college farms are not working farms in the traditional sense, their benefits are anchored by the privilege the institution provides. Academic dialogue, too, is often more concerned with the social and political bounds of the farming system than the economic and practical issues it faces. Still, Vasen noted the “pivotal opportunity” where students with little farming experience are given a significant pool of resources and learn how to garden, which is rare outside the university setting. “Obviously, Princeton does keep us afloat.”

Not dissimilarly, the Yale Farm is among cutting-edge programs supported by Yale University’s $41.4 billion endowment. Compared to Princeton’s smaller garden “project,” the Yale Farm plays a larger role in its community. Over 15 different academic departments use the farm as they would the university’s art museums or libraries. The space includes 10 growing fields, hoop houses, a small chicken coop and storage, and a timber frame pavilion for the farm’s hearth pizza oven and events. The farm exposes students to farmwork even if it doesn’t expose them to the reality of what a regular, off-campus farm is.

That exposure underlines the beauty of agriculture and its messier “curveballs,” according to Jeremy Oldfield, the farm manager of the Yale Sustainable Food Program and manager of field academics at the Yale Farm. Oldfield, who worked at a Petaluma, Calif., farm after graduating college in 2005, was quick to point out that sustainability doesn’t have one definition at the Yale Farm. “We don’t want someone to come home and declare to their friends and family that they know how to farm sustainably, and it involves this hand tool and this type of amendment,” he said.

Eli White, a sophomore and culinary events manager at the Farm, found impact and “gratitude” in the experience, “seeing students hold up carrots for the first time, or plant garlic bulbs in the ground.” If urban farm production is thought of as supplementing resources from rural areas, White said, the urban university farm is less likely to promote an unsustainable vision where the urban purports to escape the need to depend on the rural.

In a world where sustainability can be a touchy and divisive topic, the Yale Farm mediates these conversations, acknowledging where and how growers are growing in very different agricultural contexts. That might be how to best prevent soil erosion using regional sources, or how to improve crop intensity at Yale—in contrast to a farm that isn’t hand-weeding carrots on a square foot basis, but working to grow enough produce for its customers over 10 acres. Visits to outside farms let students inhabit those growing differences and extend the learning experience beyond New Haven. But, Oldfield acknowledged, it’s not guaranteed that a campus farm or sustainability organization, especially at an elite institution like Yale, would be encouraged through its institutional home to think critically about food systems issues in the face of privilege. On a rural campus like Dartmouth with neighboring farms, more opportunities exist to push past the risk of idealization and fulfill the college’s goal of making the Organic Farm a community resource.

Urban and suburban college farms—which are more insular—can present additional challenges. Raised near the corn fields of Ciudad Arce, El Salvador, Princeton sophomore Nely Rivas appreciated having the Garden Project to both earn an income and connect with her roots: Where she grew up, able to go to a tree and grab an apple or avocado was the norm. However, she became frustrated over the project’s stagnation compared to the university’s initial press releases. “The way it feels is more like greenwashing,” Rivas said. “We’re going to say we have a garden, and that’s it.” A complexity, and urgency, can be lacking in a farm maintained by students who walk there after eating Belgian waffles or global vegetarian cuisine in an Oxford-Gothic dining hall. “People come to Saturday or Sunday brunch for the chocolate fountain. You see the entire Forbes packed,” Rivas recalled. “You don’t see that at the garden.”

“They’ve marketed it well,” said Pomona first-year student Gianna Hutton. When you look up sustainability at Pomona, it’s the first thing that pops up, she said. What the website doesn’t disclose is that much of the farm’s plant life is not native to the Claremont, Calif., area. Nor does it discuss the ethics of a learning-based farm model—one that doesn’t produce much food output—using water in a drought region. Discussions around sustainability should understand that we’ve altered the terrain, Hutton said. After all, urban university gardens are mini agricultural modules, displaced from a critical role in food production and economic stability.

Campus farms need to be wary of overstating their impact—including by omission. Student gardeners’ quality of life is only voluntarily dependent on the garden space. Unlike other farmworkers, these students can opt to work elsewhere on campus or return to the ornate dining halls. But if university gardens understand their place and role, their spaces can be a worthy venture. The modern university garden should be a resource for teaching and research not tied to any one place—growing free inquiry alongside root vegetables. A college is planted not only on physical land but a community of thinkers. And with student interests in food insecurity, policy, or socio-ecological systems, these purely economic and agricultural concerns often take a back seat. “The things we do are a part of that conversation,” said Vasen, “but not a solution by itself.”

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