The sights, smells, and of course tastes of a thoroughly cultivated garden enrich every sense. What is good for the soil is equally beneficial to the soul. Out of the launch of UCLA’s Healthy Campus Initiative in January 2013 sprouted student group DigUCLA — the campus garden coalition. DigUCLA is dedicated to food growing and garden efforts and concentrates on bringing people together through education and engagement. This initiative focuses on flavor, environment, health, relaxation, and volunteerism — with the goal to build a community and transform the campus into a nourishing and restorative setting.
The group united for multiple purposes: to consider the current food system and differences between industrialized agriculture and small-scale organic farms, understand how foods grow and impact health, evaluate the sustainability of grocery stores compared to local gardens, as well as create an opportunity to get outdoors and experience the physicality of gardening.
DigUCLA maintains two gardens. The main location is at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center and the second satellite garden is located in the North Campus Student Terrace. These gardens are open to faculty, staff, students, and community members interested in lending a hand, developing a green thumb, learning how fruits, vegetables, and herbs grow, participating in cultivating a local food system, or to simply enjoy the greenery.
Alyssa Curran is DigUCLA’s Program Director. A Geography/Environmental Studies major, Alyssa stated why these edible landscapes are a vital addition to campus grounds. “As a university in a metropolitan environment like Los Angeles there is a responsibility to explore the problems that cities and people face, such as polluted stormwater management, urban heat island effect, loss of biodiversity and habitats from an environmental science and urban planning perspective, and the unequal access to nutritious foods and related consequences to health.”
She continued, “Food and medicinal gardens — particularly in public spaces — are essential for supporting the dialogue around food system strategy and the state of global food security and sustainability; they spur action for finding tangible solutions to improve it. The connection many people have with food has been lost over recent decades and we are working to rebuild that crucial connection.”
Sunset Canyon Recreation Center’s garden has tomatoes, herbs (cilantro, thyme, oregano, rosemary, parsley, mint, sage, lemon verbena, and multiple varieties of basil), beans, jalapeno peppers, sweet banana pepper, carrots, peas, radishes, potatoes, kale, collards, beets, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, limes, and nasturtium. Currently growing in the North Campus Student Terrace location are tomato, basil, butternut squash, broccoli, turnips, arugula, watermelon, and salad greens. According to Alyssa, Southern California’s Mediterranean weather allows many types of produce to thrive throughout the year.
There are a few ways to get involved with DigUCLA. Well Fed: DigRewards is the group’s internship program. Interns assume duties such as website updates, mapping, event assistance plus garden maintenance and other tasks. For their service interns are rewarded with, what else, food! Interns receive biweekly packages of items like Community Supported Agriculture boxes, credit at the UCLA Farmer’s Market, and of course, fresh produce from the gardens they’ve helped care for.
Volunteers can participate in workdays every Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at the top of the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center (by the adventure course). No experience is required and newcomers and horticulturists are welcome. DigUCLA is also working on organizing a pilot project for composting in apartments and surveying and mapping out potential sites for other gardens by pinpointing underused corners of campus.
Alyssa emphasized that it is important for campus and community members to appreciate food for nourishment, energy, and well-being. She noted that investing in the gardens leads to research and experimentation that will help populations learn to adapt and survive as our climate alters. Community gardening serves as a way to build relationships by working together, sharing a fresh, enriching experience, and consciously and responsibly acting to "be the change that we wish to see in the world.”