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Columbia College garden producing tangible lessons, food security

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The small plot of land tucked behind office buildings on Columbia College’s campus is serving a big purpose.

The newly formed Columbia College gardening club and the fruits — and vegetables and herbs — of its labors sprung from an idea floated by recent graduate Aaleeyah Brimmer that dovetailed with a long-held goal of college horticulturist John Long. Last spring, Long finally began to realize his ambition of transforming an unused piece of land in the heart of the campus from a neglected dumping ground for old equipment into a garden. He’d installed elevated beds and planted squash, tomatoes and okra when Brimmer had the inspiration to form the gardening club as part of a course project.

“We have an area that was totally useless and wasted and now has become a gathering point and something productive,” Long said.

Columbia College senior Patricia Bolden Ortiz (from left), professor Tamara Burk, horticulturalist John Long and Rare Variety Cafe owner Bonita Clemons harvest garden vegetables in December. (Photo/Provided)Joyce Fields, the director of Columbia College’s Child and Family Studies program, said projects such as the gardening club stem from a three-part core curriculum that introduces students to community service and the concept of social change. After taking social justice classes with a community service component as freshmen and sophomores, students research and develop a project proposal to spark social change as juniors. They can develop that project during an independent leadership project as seniors.

“It’s a tangible way of making what we study real and important,” said Fields, who served as advisor as Brimmer chartered the club and sought funding for it from both student government and community supporters. “We count on these women to be leaders in the world, but they have to create the change they want to see.”

Tamara Burk, a Columbia College communication professor, directs the college’s Philanthropy, Leadership and Community Engagement program. She said Brimmer wanted to help the garden provide a source of fresh produce that would help ensure food security in the community. “We have huge issues of food access in the 29203 area,” Burk said. “We’re trying to do our small part.”

The college has teamed up with Rare Variety Café, a vegan restaurant that opened in November at 4622 N. Main St. Owner Bonita Clemons was on hand for a harvest from the campus vegetable garden last month as part of what Long said will be an ongoing partnership.

Long serves as a mentor to the dozen or so students who take turns pulling weeds and caring for plants that currently include collards, kale and sage.

“That’s a little teeny tiny piece of land we’ve got that the garden club has made significantly fruitful,” Fields said. “It produces big-time.”

That’s by Long’s design. He plants small flowering annuals to attract beneficial insects and uses a soil inoculant to increase the yield — producing a tomato plant with 250 tomatoes and 8-foot tall okra this summer. “Me being 5-6, I needed a ladder to pick the okra,” Long said.

The garden’s tangible results help make classroom concepts a reality, Fields said. She said other such projects have created campus-wide change, such as allowing students to carry Mace.

“A big motivator for the course is to get students off the fence,” she said. “They’ve got to be thinkers. They’ve got to have an opinion. They’ve got to advocate, because to not do that is academically lazy. It’s intellectually lazy. It’s not paying back what they’ve paid for an education to do.”

Fields said students often go from dreading the courses to volunteering on their own time with community partners.

“It gives them leadership opportunities. It gives them a sense of their own abilities and the importance of their ideas, and then the importance of carrying out ideas,” she said. “Things don’t just have to be ideas, and we don’t have to be sad about social justice. We don’t have to be angry. We can be advocates. We can be active participants in our community to bring about change.”

This story first appeared in the Jan. 14 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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