A boy, a girl and a garden.
That is how Project V.E.G.G.I.E. began in 2012 – with a desire to provide high quality produce and a passion for sustainable living.Although it was officially founded last year, the idea behind Project V.E.G.G.I.E. – which stands for Vols Educating about Growing Gardens and Inspiring Environmentalism – has been evolving for much longer. Inspired by the documentary "Food Inc.," Neil Brown started growing tomatoes in his backyard after his freshman year. Brown, a chemical engineering major, met Candice Lawton, who harbored a similar interest – as she puts it – in "working with nature and its devices." Since then, the organization has grown in every sense of the word, gaining members, space and influence. Today, the fresh food revolution continues, still lead by the same boy and girl.
In its plot beside Andy Holt Apartments, Project V.E.G.G.I.E. farms a variety of crops, working nearly year-round to prepare the land, grow fruit and vegetables and harvest them. With work taking place on the weekends, the organization functions solely on student labor and determination. However, this operation is by no means inconsequential, yielding a diverse array of berries, legumes and squash from a 3,000 square foot area.Brown and Lawton, president and vice president respectively, plan to add new features to the garden this year. The group plans to add 500 feet of planter boxes, create a large mural next to the garden, develop a web application to more directly reach the community, construct a rainwater harvesting system and implement a worm composting system as an alternative to throwing out viable fertilizer. Brown said winter gardening may even be on the horizon, but long-term the group aims for widespread involvement.
"We hope to become so integrated with campus that we can eventually supply a portion of the food that is served in the dining halls," Brown said. "Additionally, we hope to have enough students join up that each year we graduate at least 10 people who will eventually go out into their future communities and start their own community gardens."The garden, then, acts not only as a source of nutrients, but also as experiential learning. Brown said the value of such initiatives cannot be underestimated."If we are to make due with our dwindling fuel supply, as well as turn around our health trends, we must make some changes," he said.
For Project V.E.G.G.I.E., educating its members is essential."The organization serves as a critique to current food production methodologies," Lawton said. "The U.S., the wealthiest nation in the world, is feeding its citizens a diet that evolution has not equipped us for, using methods of food production that poison and undermine the Earth's soil, water and air with unsustainable quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
"The population and the healthcare system are threatened by a crisis of diet-related illness, millions of acres of damaged farmland and chemical runoff spilling into waterways."
Project V.E.G.G.I.E. is not the only organization looking to make reforms within the subject of sustainability," Elias Attea, leader of the UTK Food Policy Council and a senior in plant sciences, said she was left wanting more from the ARAMARK supplied dining services on campus. Nearly devoid of locally and sustainably-sourced foods, Attea said the group saw a need to establish a megaphone for the consumers and participants in a food system. The Food Policy Council was formed along with its central campaign, the Real Food Challenge, which was passed last spring with the support of SGA. "The intention is to reduce food miles, support Tennessee and sustainable agriculture, promote the farm-to-table connection, introduce food labeling and transparency and so on," Attea said. The most recent data released by the Harvard School of Public Health advises between five and 13 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, whereas the 2012 American College Health Association's survey reports that the majority of university students eat only one or two servings. It is this disparity that merits each program's concern.
For those interested in joining the movement, Project V.E.G.G.I.E. can be liked or joined on their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ProjectVeggie, through their email, email@example.com, or by attending an upcoming interest meeting. The Food Policy Council can also be contacted on Facebook.