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Fresh food ideas grow on Gainesville State
Students want garden to sprout on campus
Barista Liz Gilman pours steamed milk Wednesday into a customer's Americano at The Coffee Shop inside the Academic IV Building at Gainesville State College. The coffee shop uses an average of 70-80 gallons of milk a week. This quantity would make it difficult to buy from small local creameries that may not be able to fill such a large order. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

A group of students at Gainesville State is seeking to grow their own on campus.

Patricia Choquette, a student in the school's human services delivery and administration program, says the effort is about connecting the notoriously poor college students with richly nutritious foods.

"My idea was: Why not start a community garden that would serve the students, the faculty, the staff — who admittedly are some of the working poor — and the outside community?" said Choquette.

Choquette applied for a grant last year to start four community gardens in the area. The grant money never came, but her desire to create an opportunity for her fellow students and Gainesville State community to grow fresh food didn't go away, either.

"There is an awareness, so I want to help foster that, and I also want to serve those who can't afford (fresh, organic food)," Choquette said.

The school had an organic gardening club last year, which assistant biology professor Margi Flood said "basically disintegrated" after the two faculty advisers left the school.

The club started four raised-bed garden plots that Flood said "a couple of students played with" over the summer.

"We raised some okra, they had some tomatoes, but it was not particularly well run," said Flood. "It's not that they didn't know what they were doing. It's just that they are students and they're overwhelmed and so they didn't have a lot of time. There were only two or three students who actually carried this through."

Sloan Jones, the college's spokeswoman, also remembers a time in the early 1990s that faculty and staff had their own plots on the campus.

The two stories illustrate what Gainesville State student Tom Torres calls "fits and starts" with a campus garden for students.

"People want to do different things and then it ends up going nowhere ..." said Torres. "Gainesville (State College), for the most part, it's been a two-year school, so there's just a lot of turnover between semesters and so there's the issue of sustainability in terms of who will be putting it together and who will be managing it."

At some point, Torres, an environmental studies student, met Choquette. They talked about a number of local actors in the area that were doing "innovative" things with food.

She wants to sell membership for plots and involve campus faculty and staff, who tend to stick around longer than the students. But first, she's got to talk to the school's administration and staff in charge of the grounds about how much land the students can use for the project.

The plans are still very much in the conceptual phase.
Choquette is in the midst of having a number of informational meetings with students and faculty to gauge interest and figure out the next steps.

"I don't want this to be just a project, I want this to be a long-term garden, something that stays around forever," said Choquette.

At a panel discussion that Torres moderated with organic and local food advocates Wednesday, Choquette had a sign-up sheet for other students interested in the initiative.

Nearly 20 students signed their names.

"We see that there's a pretty good energy and it's going to turn into something really cool with our garden," said Torres.

Maryam Akbarzada, a 28-year-old nursing student, was one of the students signing up to be a part of the community garden initiative after Wednesday's panel discussion.

As president of the school's biology club, Akbarzada said the club didn't have enough money to order healthy food from the school's catering service.

As a general rule, the school requires that campus-sponsored events must be catered by the on-site catering service to ensure that the food served comes from a certified kitchen that meets state health requirements.

"I looked into ordering a bowl of couscous with four little chicken breasts and it was like $45, enough to serve five people," said Akbarazda. "We have over 50 people in the club, so our only option is to order pizza."

Butch Exley, who owns Owen-Exley LLC, the company that operates Gainesville State College Dining Services, said the food in the campus dining hall is mostly cooked fresh. Most of the food is supplied by PFG, Exley said.

"I wish I had the luxury of going to a farmers market year-round and picking up things - not always possible..." said Exley. "I would love to be able to buy all my milk from the (Mountain Fresh) creamery, but we go through 75, 80 gallons of milk a week just for the coffee shop."

That estimate, which Exley said ranges from 60 to 80 gallons, isn't counting half-and-half.

Choquette said she'd love to see the garden supply the dining hall on campus.

But that's big picture. First, Choquette just wants to find how she and other students can get their hands dirty, and they'll let the idea grow from there.

"I don't know how far it's going to go, because I want that to be a consensus…I want the direction of that garden to go where the people and the community that's around it drives it," said Choquette.