UT expansion must grow with student community farms

Benroy Chan

The story of development taking over nature is far from new — all over the world, airports replace forests and homes sit on prairies. And now, the University of Texas’s two community gardens might meet a similar fate.

Last year, UT administrators finalized the 2015 East Campus Master Plan. The plan will expand graduate student housing in the east campus area and potentially compromise the future of the UT Microfarm and Concho Community Garden. The farms have tremendous importance to our campus’ culture, education and sustainability, so UT administrators must find a way to build around them or fund their relocation.

A week ago, Students Empowered by Food, an organization formed to protect UT’s community gardens, created a petition on Change.org to keep these farms that has garnered over 1,000 signatures. The page’s description says UT administrators have continually failed to include farm leaders in decision-making processes and have “created a climate of stress, frustration and uncertainty for Concho’s and Microfarm’s participants.”

The group wants UT to incorporate the farms into the future east campus development or, if unable to do so, fund their relocation. They also hope to establish a formal protocol between student leaders and UT administrators when future developments conflict with student projects.

Jim Walker, director of the Office of Sustainability, said his office sees access to community gardens as a valuable resource and fully intends to relocate the gardens if they are demolished. Walker said even if the farms cannot supply a significant amount of food due to their size, they offer educational opportunities beyond their physical limitations.

“I think students doing hands-on learning or getting their hands dirty, literally, is always a valuable experience,” Walker said.

Although the farms are small, the Microfarm and Concho Community Garden bring the huge issue of unsustainable agriculture and “food miles” to light. Around 80 percent of the energy used in food production goes into processing, packaging and transportation, and on average, produce travels 1,300 to 2,000 miles to reach a consumer. All of this increases greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use, and eating locally-grown foods can dramatically reduce our impact on climate change.

In addition, providing a way for students to grow their own food allows us to reconnect with an undeniably important resource. In our day-to-day lives, we often take food for granted because we do not understand what goes into its production. Forming a deeper connection with food can inspire us to reduce food waste and promote sustainability.

James Collins, assistant director of the Microfarm and government freshman, said he participates in community gardening and urban farming because of the ability to educate people on community and sustainability.

“Community gardening and urban farming reconnect people with their food, but they also empower volunteers and participants to make changes in their lifestyle and values towards sustainability,” Collins said. “Food brings people together, whether [they are] growing, cooking or enjoying it. As a culture, we overlook food and, in doing so, overlook a significant part of culture itself.”

As our campus continues to expand, future development is inevitable. However, the community gardens at UT have found their place in the hearts of many students, and as such, should be protected or appropriately relocated. The leaders of the farm have spoken up, and hopefully university administrators will listen.

Chan is a journalism and environmental science freshman from Sugar Land. Follow him on Twitter @BenroyChan.