Edible Campus Gardens Rooted in Education, Community and Food Justice 🥕🍅🌱


The edible campus gardens. (Photo courtesy of Cam Mcveigh)

By Kayleigh Silverstein, Special Projects Managing Editor, News Writer


Gabrielle James’ job changes with the season. They are the garden program coordinator with the University of Utah’s Sustainability Office, overseeing the Edible Campus Gardens program.

James is the only full-time staff member but has help from three garden stewards who work with them throughout the growing season. From ordering seeds to coordinating volunteer shifts to planning the garden, James is in charge of the backend operations of the gardens.

They love getting “deep in the dirt and covered in worms” but also being involved with the educational component the gardens offer. 

James said while campus gardens are becoming more popular, they certainly aren’t commonplace. 

Growing While Growing

The gardens started in 1996, and have evolved greatly since then. They originated as a lab space in the Sill Garden for a biology class called “ecological gardening.” By 2002, they expanded to add Pioneer Garden. It then became a student-led program, as the biology class transitioned to become “organic gardening,” housed in the environmental and sustainability studies major. 

“So it’s half lecture, half working in the gardens, where students have their own small plots that they get to work on,” James said. 

Jacie Lee is a junior studying social work and has been a garden steward with the Edible Campus Gardens since fall 2022. She used to study in the gardens and watch people tend to them. Her front yard is also filled with garden boxes, and she enjoys gardening with her roommates.

“I used to garden with my grandma when I was a little younger, but I didn’t really like it as much,” Lee said. “And then it’s just grown so much now that I work at the campus gardens.”

Lee said the gardens give “students a place where they belong, and they can work with like-minded people,” to grow some produce. 

For Cam McVeigh, an environmental and sustainability studies major and communication intern at the Sustainability Office, the gardens provide a sense of community. As a transfer student, the gardens allowed them to meet people who shared similar interests of understanding the mechanisms of growth.

“It sparks a passion in me that I didn’t know I had for both growing food and food justice,” McVeigh said.

One of the first classes they took upon coming to the U was the organic gardening class, which is only offered in the fall.

“I learned so much, we got immediately into the garden and I loved seeing how the garden is an educational tool before I started learning all about what the Sustainability Office does,” they said.

From buckwheat to radishes to mushrooms, McVeigh learned how to grow many different types of produce through the class. They explored gardening on a smaller scale, while also seeing firsthand the gardens’ impact on the community, especially through the Feed U Pantry.

Anything that is harvested first goes to the gardens’ volunteers, with the majority offered in the Feed U Pantry for free to the campus community. According to McVeigh, student interest is high as the produce always leaves shelves. 

This year, the garden team plans to plant more ready-to-eat produce, so students can just grab some fruits or vegetables and not have to cook them.

Grounded in Community

According to Lee, there are 14,000 square feet of garden space, split between the Sill Garden and the Pioneer Garden, near Pioneer Theatre. Also part of the program are small planters outside of the Sustainability Office in the Business Classroom Building.

James said the garden is committed to contributing to the U’s goals of being a living lab, which means pairing physical facilities with academic work.

“What that looks like for us is hosting classes, hosting researchers, hosting project groups and partnerships that are really deep with those folks,” James said. 

One of the classes is a writing class that does a free writing period in the gardens. James said there are some people they will only see once through their whole degree, but they get the chance to talk to them about “the food system and how it relates to whatever they’re studying.” 

“I love teaching a class and getting people that have never gardened before,” Lee said. “When they first come in, they’re like scared to get dirty and then by the end of it, they’re just digging holes and they just love it.”

The gardens also offer a space for research. One faculty researcher is looking at the gardens’ compost as a project in metallurgical engineering, while a graduate student in material science engineering is looking into the compostability of certain materials. 

“She’s taken a bunch of materials, some of them labeled as compostable, some of them not, and looking at how compostable they really are,” James said. “She’ll be digging them up every week and weighing them to see how they break down over time. And that project is happening in the gardens but away from the foods so there’s no plastic or chemical leaching.”

Currently, one student is redesigning a part of the garden to be more pollinator-friendly while another is launching a demonstration garden of how one can use plastic to build a balcony garden. Another student is working on increasing access to the seed library. 

“We’ll be building a little access point for the seed library down at the Pioneer Garden,” James said. 

In addition to the Feed U Pantry, the gardens partner with the American Indian Resource Center through the CIRCLE Program, which “supports the development of American Indian and Alaska Native undergraduate students where students will engage in opportunities grounded in cultural principles, practices, and values,” according to their website.

They’re also partnered with the Women’s Resource Center, doing a coffee and conversations event about climate grief and anxiety. 

“So we’ll be having a circle, hopefully hosted in the garden, pending weather … to discuss that and then some hands-on time of connecting that anxiety and that grief into action,” James said. “And also talking about how this connects to climate justice, both being anxiety and turning that into action, but also specifically the gardens, how agricultural work is related to climate justice.”

Food Justice

Forty percent of college students experience food insecurity, meaning they do not have the resources to obtain food.

In 2020, students in the garden program advocated changing the program from selling to Chartwells and at farmers markets to being more food justice-oriented. 

“At that point, I think that’s when that relationship with the Feed U Pantry got really strong, because we discussed with them and decided that we just take most of the produce to them and have them distribute it, so that continues through today,” James said.

According to McVeigh, food justice is a concept that refers to ensuring everyone has access to “healthful and culturally appropriate food.”

“Students are some of the most vulnerable populations, and so the gardens are able to alleviate that food insecurity,” they said. “… It gives people an opportunity to connect with the food that they are going to be eating, which also is an aspect of food justice.”

In order to have a sustainable future, McVeigh emphasized the importance of re-localizing agriculture. 

“Having access to organic, locally-produced products ensures that we’re going to have food no matter what happens,” McVeigh said. 

According to James, they are not seeking organic certification because “that’s a specifically regulated term that is particularly used for for-profit farms to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is why you should spend more on this,’” they said. James said the gardens do things “beyond organically.”

“We don’t use any chemicals, we do things regeneratively and we do things bio-intensively, which are fancy ways of saying that we really focus on our soil and take care of the whole system,” they said.  

By focusing on the soil structure, they are supporting biodiversity, which not only allows for more carbon capture but also more flavorful and nutritious crops.

Planting the Seeds

The gardens were supposed to open a month ago, but with the unprecedented snowfall and cold temperatures, the season has been delayed.

“Hopefully, it’ll clear up in the next few weeks,” McVeigh said. “It might just result in a little bit of later harvest times on the back end.”

James said volunteer shifts have not been launched yet due to the snow, but individuals should keep an eye on their Instagram for updates.

“We ask that folks don’t volunteer in the garden unless it’s during a shift and when our staff is working just to promote the safety of staff and students and also the gardens,” James said. 

Also, if there’s a component of a student’s class that would work well to incorporate the gardens, they are encouraged to reach out to James. 

McVeigh urges anyone on campus to walk through the gardens near the end of the semester. 

“It’s an awesome opportunity just to see what it’s like for food to be grown in an urban setting and to reconnect with that little piece of nature that a lot of times we’re missing when we go to the supermarket,” they said. 


[email protected]