Models of Food Sustainability Practices: Warren Wilson College and Mills College

Sustainability has been a hot topic for many years, due to the growing demand to find eco-friendly alternatives. University budgets, however, are often spread thin, making it difficult for schools to go Green." Many colleges are stepping up, though, and promoting eco-friendly and Earth-positive initiatives that work within the colleges and their partnerships.

For these college-community partnerships, food is of special concern. If Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t enough of a reminder, this country loves food. Many aspects of America’s food industry have been under consistent scrutiny, thus resulting in a dramatic increase in vegetarian, vegan, cruelty-free, GMO-free, and organic options. These topics are of special concern at Warren Wilson College (Asheville, North Carolina) and Mills College (Oakland, California). In particular, these institutions are creating food security and food sustainability on their campuses while simultaneously involving the community in their food-based projects.

Urban Farms Reaping Crops and Benefits

The urban farm at Mills College started as a graduate student’s project in 2010, and has grown into a community-wide resource; since the beginning of the project, the farm has grown to span 2.5 acres. This “Farm Hub,” as Mills calls the garden, is designed to unite the greater community with the college. Due to recent community partnerships and grants, the Urban Farm will continue to grow and will be able to provide even further resources to those in and near Mills. Their five-year plan has already begun to grow the potency and outreach of the community garden.

Mills College is nestled in the Bay Area, which is essentially a food desert; Mills plans on increasing the community’s access to fresh food, creating stronger bonds with the community as a whole, and taking an active involvement in the Bay Area’s food policies.  Karen Fiene—Director of Construction Compliance and Sustainability—Nicole Gaetjens—the Sustainability Coordinator and Alisha Strater—the Farm Manager at Mills College—spoke energetically and proudly of some of the upcoming changes and advancements in Mills’ garden.

Fiene explains that Mills is committed to “creating a just and inclusive environment for students where diversity and individual identities are celebrated.” As a women’s college, she explains, they have a long tradition of challenging gender stereotypes, injustice and inequality. She states, “We also recognize the need for Environmental Justice which recognizes the inequities that many in challenged communities are faced with. The campus, and especially the community farm, serves as a learning laboratory where students can experiment and learn to model our core values.”

Warren Wilson College is unique in the way they handle sustainability as a whole. They are one of only seven colleges in the country that are part of the work college consortium—which means that all enrolled students have to work in sustaining the college. Benjamin Mackie, the College Garden Manager, explained that Warren Wilson has an all-vegetation garden and an animal-rearing farm. At any given time, there are about 25 students working to maintain and run the garden.

The Hand That Feeds

The food grown in the Urban Farm is used to supplement both the food eaten at Mills and the community at large. In addition to supplying food, education is also offered—both formal and informal research opportunities are available to anyone interested in learning more about healthy eating. For example, the local private schools located on Mills’ campus have started gardens of their own.

Mills College donates all of the leftovers to the local nonprofit called Chefs to End Hunger. The distribution of leftovers to local food banks further promotes the mission of providing organic, sustainable options to the college and greater community.

Food justice and sustainability issues are among the core concerns for Mills College’s Social Justice program. As Farm Manager, Strater has started a progressive class that incorporates skills from the farm and social issues in the community. Strater notes that 35 students are enrolled in her “Farming and Food Justice Class,” a course that helps students explore the food justice community in the Bay Area and develop hands-on skills to attack food justice issues. She adds, “This praxis of conceptualizing a theoretical framework, engaging the community, and creating in the landscape forms the kind of self-empowerment and agency that supports active change makers in our society.”

Warren Wilson offers similar projects, such as the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, NC State’s Amazing Grazing program, and King’s Agriseeds field days. They offer the Farm Crew of students hundreds of opportunities to become involved in the food sustainability projects across the community. Warren Wilson is also taking an active role in the Real Food Challenge, which is an initiative to have at least 20% of community food be “real food” by 2020. Warren Wilson has already far surpassed this goal, reaching 33% real food. This accomplishment, along with other humane and sustainable projects, has earned Warren Wilson an “A” on PETA’s Vegan Report Card.

Leave the Shovel: Bring Your Appetite

Mills College not only provides food to the community, but they also support local farms within 150 miles from the college, as well as using this food in their cafeteria. All of the food and dairy at Mills is rBGH-free and cage-free. Though the garden at Mills is not large enough to provide all the food in their Bon Appétit cafeteria, Bon Appétit does buy whatever the garden is able to sell.

Similarly, Warren Wilson College raises their livestock humanely. The Farm takes advantage of the natural ecosystem and works with the seasons and land to raise their organic, seasonal Photo courtesy Mills College crops. Additionally, the college’s farm and garden have partnered with Sodexo to supply the food eaten at Warren Wilson.

Rebecca Doyle, the sustainability manager at the college, raves about the partnership between the cooperation and the college. This partnership is efficient, amicable, and envied by other colleges. Doyle even speaks to other colleges and teaches them how to have better sustainability partnerships. In many regards on this topic, Warren Wilson is considered the gold standard.

Down and Dirty

Warren Wilson College is certainly an ecologically progressive college. This institution has long strived to connect academics, community, and work, ultimately creating an enriching, fulfilling environment that promotes sustainable farming.

This farm spans 275 acres, consisting of 25 mixed crop and mixed livestock fields. Similarly, Mills is in the process of growing their garden and farm, and they plan on introducing aquaponics in their next green house. This step will not only introduce fish into their initiative to grow the farm and garden, but also allow them to grow food 10x larger, thus utilizing the amount of space they have for sustainability.

The aspect that seems to be essential to food sustainability on campus is student involvement and passion. Representatives from both Mills and Warren Wilson College emphasized how their students’ internal drive and motivations for sustainability are the backbone of the successes of their farms and gardens.

About the Author
Cassidy Clevenger is a Samford University alum. After earning her BA in Psychology, she studied Gerontology at Georgia State, and is back at Samford finishing her MSW while working as a staff writer for PUPN Magazine.