Before coming to Penn State, Schreyer Honors College scholar Vancie Peacock never stepped foot on a farm and remained “disconnected from the food system” due to her hometown’s location.
However, Peacock’s (sophomore-biological engineering) previously limited agricultural background did not stop her from proposing and leading the Schreyer Honors College and Dr. Keiko Miwa Ross Student Farm at Penn State-collaborated Pocket Garden in Penn State’s South Halls residential living area — in the courtyard next to Simmons Hall facing McKean Road.
“I saw a need for students to be able to connect with the food system, see where their food is coming from and how to grow their own food,” Peacock said. “And then at the same time, I saw that [Penn State] had this really high percentage of students who are facing food insecurity, which comes from not having access to affordable, fresh food.”
Peacock said the Schreyer Pocket Garden project addresses many of the issues she highlighted around campus and provides a central working space for students to be able to “walk by, see it, ask questions and learn about food insecurity in general and its prevalence on campus.”
A pocket garden is a garden constructed in a confined area that permits gardeners to use underutilized spaces to efficiently grow produce and other forms of vegetation, according to Gardening Know How.
Peacock’s pocket garden provides education and community engagement for Penn State students, and this spring, it will produce fresh foods for those experiencing food insecurities on campus.
She said the pocket garden’s presence on campus may inspire students to seek the resources available to them if they are experiencing insecurity and provide students with educational and community opportunities to learn how to grow food.
A nationwide #RealCollege Survey, conducted most recently in 2019 by The Hope Center, discovered 33% of four-year college students experience some extent of food insecurity, according to Penn State’s Food and Housing Security Task Force Report released in February 2021.
The nationwide survey found 38% of students could not afford to purchase nutritionally balanced meals, and 28% of college students reduce their meal size or skip meals altogether due to monetary restrictions.
Through a survey Project Cahir — a Penn State student group dedicated to combating student poverty — and Penn State Student Affairs Research and Assessment conducted, more localized results about the impact of food insecurity on Penn State’s campuses were discovered.
Foremost, the survey discovered 20% of Penn State students skipped meals in the past week due to funding limitations, and 22% of students lacked a balanced meal “sometimes” or “often” in the month time period.
Rather than evaluating the healthiest food options while grocery shopping, the release said 61% of Penn State students recorded purchasing the most affordable food available — regardless of its nutritional value.
When analyzing the freshness of their food, 22% of Penn State students said they “strongly” or “somewhat” disagreed it was easy to purchase fresh produce, and 33% of students indicated that fresh fruits and vegetables were unaffordable for their budget.
The survey of Penn State students also discovered both students of color and international students faced increased levels of food insecurity while living in State College.
During fall 2019, a Penn State College Relationships and Experiences Survey was distributed via email to first- and second-year students, focusing on food and housing concerns. Survey results demonstrated 35% of respondents experienced some level of food insecurity.
Students living off campus were most likely to indicate a level of food insecurity, with 47% of respondents denoting such a situation, and 35% of respondents residing in on-campus living fit the food insecurity threshold, the report said.
Creating the new pocket garden
“[Administration] doesn’t usually allow students to [modify Penn State grounds] because students graduate and interests change,” Peacock said. “That was a big challenge — trying to prove that this is something that could be sustainable and last even after I graduate.”
Peacock said she created a project proposal with the help of staff members at the Student Farm at Penn State, whose “backing as a credible program” helped in convincing administration of the pocket garden’s sustainability since the staff could help guarantee the garden will continue in the future.
Peacock’s project became a collaborative effort as she consulted and coordinated with organizations like the Student Farm, The Lion’s Pantry, Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant and the Schreyer Honors College.
“I really wanted the project to be interdisciplinary and to bring in a lot of different groups of people because I think that’s something special about gardening and farming and food — it applies to everyone,” Peacock said.
Various logistical considerations came into play when organizing the project, including the location of the garden, water sourcing, supply sourcing and project funding, according to Peacock.
While writing the proposal, Peacock outlined the specifics of the projects — from the operational budget to where volunteers would come from.
“It was definitely more challenging than [I predicted], but I’m glad that it was because I really wanted to put a lot of thought into this project and make sure that it was done the right way where I could really impact students,” Peacock said. “I feel lucky that I was given this opportunity to make such a permanent and lasting impact.”
With the proposal approved at the beginning of the fall semester after working on it for a year, Peacock said volunteers were able to break the ground of the garden and begin laying down tarps and mulching.
According to Peacock, Student Farm volunteers helped collect leftover lumber from OPP to create the raised beds necessary for production.
Peacock said building garden supplies — like the garden beds — is an activity where students think, “‘Oh my gosh. I can’t do this because I’ve never built anything before.’”
However, she said most students who volunteer are surprised about their skills and find the experience to be “empowering.”
Peacock said her own experience of volunteering at the on-campus Student Farm Club Rooftop Garden was inspiring and memorable because she’d never grown anything before and discovered she was capable of it.
A rooftop garden is a man-made green space on top of a building’s rooftop used to grow an assortment of fruits and vegetables while improving air quality in high urban areas, according to New York Decks.
“I really want others to have that positive experience like I did — build a community with one another and have that place on campus where they can go to destress and feel safe getting active rest,” Peacock said.
Peacock, who manages the Student Farm Club’s Rooftop Garden, said her involvement at the garden helped her plan the new pocket garden project.
During the last week of November 2021, Peacock said the pocket garden held its first two volunteer days, which she said experienced “good turnout."
More volunteering opportunities will be available in the spring semester, according to Peacock, and the first season of produce will transpire.
Peacock said she currently has approximately 25 people signed up as volunteers. However, she said she plans to expand the volunteer list in the coming weeks.
“I really wanted this to be a place that staff could volunteer too,” Peacock said. “It would be really cool for students to get to garden alongside their professors or staff members in their academic college.”
Peacock said Student Farm Club volunteers used the Rooftop Garden as a “pilot program” to prepare for the pocket garden, growing produce like kale, lettuce and broccoli to donate to The Lion’s Pantry.
She said the garden grew select produce that didn’t need to be cut or precisely handled — since many college students don’t have access to kitchens, cooking tools or cooking education.
“It can be really intimidating if you don’t grow up around a lot of fruits and vegetables and to be handed things you’ve never seen before or know how to cook,” Peacock said. “You may just not eat them.”
Pocket garden visually represents food insecurity
Marta Plumhoff, the food systems coordinator with the Sustainable Food Systems Program at Penn State, said she joined the pocket garden project team halfway through its development when Peacock was “turning her idea into something actionable.”
Plumhoff said the garden provides students with an opportunity to help “close the gap” of food insecurity by growing foods students can eat.
“We wanted to make sure that we were including as many voices in the [development stage] of the project as we could so that we can ultimately serve as many voices as we can when it comes to fruition,” Plumhoff said.
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The garden project will act as a “visual representation” of the food insecurity issue on campus and will be a reminder to students about the challenges their fellow peers may be facing on top of academics, Plumhoff said.
“It provides the opportunity for students to be confronted with the fact that food insecurity is a real thing on campus,” Plumhoff said. “When they walk past this garden on their way to class or simply through the [residence] halls area, they’ll learn about why we’re growing food and what we’re growing food for.”
Plumhoff said the more visible the topic of food insecurity is, the more people can understand the situation and how they can help.
“The student voice is necessary to make these conversations happen and to make them loud,” Plumhoff said. “It was a student who came and [said], ‘I want to make a garden on campus.’ There were a lot of partners and lots of work that went into it, but I think it’s really important to know that the students have the power to make change on campus, and I hope this is just an inspiring example of that — how that can happen.”
Making the topic more forefront in daily conversations also can destigmatize food insecurity for anyone who has misconceptions or negative connotations and make students feel more comfortable in seeking help, she said.
“If it’s successful or if we can figure out how to make it more successful, I would love to be able to use this as a model for other food gardens here on campus or even as a model or guidance for other campuses who might not have the space capabilities for massive farm work like we do here,” Plumhoff said.
Plumhoff said being able to use this project as a “pilot” for future projects is exciting because it opens up a lot of possibilities for the future.
Olivia Kranefuss, a member of Penn State Student Farm Club’s Leadership Board, said the pocket garden project, for her, is really about “raising awareness” and promoting students to “take care of each other” while addressing the issue of food insecurity.
“I didn’t realize before getting to college that food insecurity was an issue that many students dealt with because I thought meal plans and [LionCash] would take care of it,” Kranefuss (senior-agricultural science) said. “But I didn’t stop to think about where that money would be coming from.”
When the topic of food insecurity is discussed, Kranefuss said she believes many people think of cities or food deserts in the western part of the country — rather than thinking about college campuses.
She said that’s where education comes in to shed light on the widespread impact of the issue.
“The Student Farm is a bit of a walk off campus, and some students don’t really know about it or how to get there easily,” Kranefuss said. “But I think the cool thing about the pocket gardens is that they’re popping up all over campus.”
Volunteering at the on-campus rooftop and pocket gardens
Kranefuss said the visibility of the gardens will hopefully allow students to become interested in the project through observation of the work and cause them to ask questions about the food process.
With the Schreyer Pocket Garden currently in its “baby phase,” Kranefuss said student volunteers have the opportunity to “help grow the garden from the ground up” — from raising the garden beds to transporting soil and tending to seedlings.
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Kranefuss said she helped during some volunteer days to lay irrigation tape and other necessary tasks to get the garden going.
“Experience definitely shouldn’t be a boundary because it’s a really open and welcoming environment to learn something new,” Kranefuss said. “A lot of people that volunteer don’t know how to garden, but we all work together and have some really good guidance.”
Kranefuss said the fact that students work with their peers — rather than adults — makes the experience “less intimidating” for new volunteers.
“There are also a lot of people [volunteering] on work days, so it’s never just you and another person,” Kranefuss said. “So in that way, if you don’t have experience, it’s not like you’re being singled out or having to take on a lot of responsibility.”
Although Kranefuss has had a limited role in the project thus far, she said “it’s been a really special thing seeing her friends and fellow students find their passions” for agriculture, along with seeing Peacock’s vision “blossom” through her passion and dedication.
Kranefuss said she was walking past the Schreyer Pocket Garden with Peacock one day, and Peacock started “showing it to [her] and jumping around in excitement” while she explained her plans for the garden’s future.
Peacock was not the only student excited about the new project, as Student Farm intern Tess Kaveney said she became passionate about the pocket garden upon hearing about its plans.
Kaveney (junior-plant sciences and horticulture) said she became involved in the project during the summer after Peacock convinced her to join the project, knowing her big passion for the type of work.
Before starting college, Kaveney said she apprenticed at a different farm that donated a majority of their produce to local soup kitchens and pantries in the Philadelphia area.
When Peacock approached her about the pocket garden, she said the project “sparked” her interest immediately, and she was instantly motivated to get involved.
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“It’s very eye-opening once you get involved with it to see how much food insecurity is impacting us as a society — from local towns, college campuses, middle schools, grade schools and anywhere else in your community,” Kaveney said.
She said many volunteer days have consisted of weeding using specialized tools. However, she said when aspects of the garden are eventually ready, students will also be able to help with the harvesting process.
“A lot of people seem to enjoy [weeding] because they think it’s actually quite therapeutic, and I do as well,” Kaveney said. “It’s a great time to meet people with similar interests as well when doing the hand-weeding.”
Kaveney said once volunteers have one skill down, they are typically encouraged to get even more involved and learn the next step of the process.
“It’s great that we have people from all different majors and clubs because it brings people together with similar interests to learn more about what’s impacting their local community that’s right around them,” Kaveney said.
Having a diverse array of volunteers also allows the message of the pocket garden and food insecurity to spread further and raises increased awareness on all parts of campus, Kaveney said.
Kaveney said the diverse array of student volunteers also come from several countries with distinct cultures and cultural cuisines.
While harvesting the produce and volunteering at the gardens, she said some students share stories about dishes they can make the vegetables being harvested — sharing recipes from their cultures with the group.
Kaveney said her and Peacock have considered hosting cooking collaborations, like those hosted by the Student Farm, at the pocket gardens so students can teach each other how to cook the vegetables and fruits being provided to the pantry — especially recipes from diverse cultures.
After graduating from Penn State, Kaveney said she hopes to work for the university to see an expansion of the gardens to further increase produce output to help the food insecurity issue.
Many students — like Sophie Eyer — said they were interested in increasing their community involvement within on-campus gardens this fall because they felt volunteer efforts and opportunities were limited over the past two years due to the pandemic.
Eyer (junior-community, environment and development) said having on-campus gardens — like the Rooftop Garden and Schreyer Pocket Garden — allowed her to work more with sustainable agriculture because she did not have to travel the increased distance to the Student Farm.
Penn State’s Student Farm is located on the northern part of campus at the intersection of Big Hollow and Fox Hollow roads, according to the Student Farm website.
The Student Farm can most easily be accessed by bicycle or car, the site said.
Eyer spent the majority of her semester volunteering at the Rooftop Garden on Eisenhower Road across from the Eisenhower Auditorium. However, she said she has interest in volunteering at the new pocket garden as well.
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She became interested in the garden projects after a friend shared with her how the garden’s produce could be donated to the food pantry so students have increased access to fresh items, Eyer said.
“I feel like students aren’t really aware of food insecurity on college campuses, and I feel that way because I wasn’t really aware of it — same with a lot of people I’ve talked to,” Eyer said.
Beyond a lack of knowledge of the food insecurity problem on campus, Eyer said many students are unfamiliar with food prepping strategies that allow them to balance their meals and their recommended daily food intake.
“Food prepping is one of the only successful ways students can make sure they’re taking in the right calories and nutrients,” Eyer said. “And that’s really hard to do as a college student on top of classes and work schedules — making some students struggle more.”
Before volunteering, Eyer said she had no experience farming or gardening before. Yet she said that didn’t deter her from getting her hands dirty and learning from her peers.
She said Peacock taught volunteers the proper techniques for gardening, such as how to properly plant seeds so they grow efficiently and pull different types of weeds.
Through her academic studies, Eyre said she’s learned about the “importance of green spaces to help clean the air” and “improve air quality,” which is another reason she’s glad to learn about more gardens being created around campus.
Eyer said she believes fresh produce is “good for the mind,” and everyone should have access to fresh foods without struggling to pay expensive prices or find transportation methods to get to a grocery store.
“This project is going to be very important for Penn State because it’s giving students the opportunity to have access to fresh produce, which normally isn’t an option in food pantries,” Eyer said.
Collaborating with Penn State’s Lion’s Pantry
Claire Byrnes, a member of the Penn State Student Farm Club’s Leadership Board, said food insecurity can be a challenging topic to discuss since some people associate it with “shame.” However, Byrnes hopes the culture around these discussions changes with increased awareness and education about the complexities of the food system.
“The point of the project is to really bring us together as a student body,” Byrnes (senior-anthropology and geography) said. “It’s not about what college you’re in, or your major, or where you from, or if you’re from a city or a farm — it’s really just about coming together around this issue and getting your hands in the soil.”
According to Byrnes, solving the problem of food access doesn’t necessarily correlate to solving food insecurity — making the situation even more complex.
“Just because you have access to squash if we grow it doesn’t mean you know how to cook the squash or eat it,” Byrnes said.
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Byrnes said she grew up in Philadelphia where the “most [she] had was backyards and parks” and no farms to get involved with or learn about agriculture from.
“Coming to farm-focused, rural Pennsylvania, I was definitely intimidated to get involved in agriculture,” Byrnes said. “But it’s fun. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the Earth.”
Byrnes said everyone, even Student Farm leaders, learn off each other and grow collectively through their collaborative efforts.
When working on garden projects, Byrnes said Peacock is “really great at not assuming anything — where people came from or their backgrounds with gardening,” which shows her great character as a leader.
Byrnes said Peacock explains to volunteers the process of gardening and why certain tasks are completed — rather than just allocating tasks without explanation and further instructions.
“First-year students are really looked down upon [since] they’re new and getting used to things, but [Peacock] is a great example of what can happen if students are put in charge of projects from the start,” Byrnes said. “Here’s her leading a group of students to really change things on campus. Think of all the other things we could solve if students had more power and were listened to more.”
With Penn State now having both the Rooftop Garden and the Schreyer Pocket Garden, Byrnes said it can establish the possibility of even more gardens in the future.
“It’s not that we’re wanting to commit world domination, but really every green space can be a garden,” Byrnes said.
According to Byrnes, the Penn State community is seeing through these projects that a regular green lawn by a dorm building can be a garden as can a rooftop on a nearby building.
“If you walk two blocks down to downtown State College or drive anywhere in a suburb, they all have lawns, and that’s just how America is seeing the American dream now — a suburban house and a lawn,” Byrnes said. “I think it’s really great for Penn State to support us in terms of showing that maybe the ‘lawn’ isn’t all it’s hyped up to be and that maybe there’s a different way to view and interact with nature.”
Byrnes said her vision is for every dorm building or college department to eventually have a garden space to work in as a community. Such a development would also improve the available amount of produce able to be donated to the food pantry.
The Lion’s Pantry formed in 2014 after two Penn State students recognized the need some students struggled with daily necessities, and it provided approximately 30,000 pounds of food and household supplies to students throughout 2020, according to Sarah Hohman, its communications director.
Throughout 2020, Hohman (graduate-public health) said The Lion’s Pantry assisted over 1,600 visitors.
Additionally, the pantry’s visitor number was influenced by the “increased visibility of the pantry,” Hohman said, and “the pandemic that certainly put students in situations that previously hadn’t experienced.”
Hohman said although The Lion’s Pantry serves 1,600 students, it’s not serving all of the students who face food insecurity or may need the help.
“There’s that population of students that we’re either not reaching — in the sense that they don’t know our services exist or [are] concerned about bias [or judgment] — and in a big way, that’s the population of students that I’m more concerned about,” Hohman said.
Hohman said the pocket garden project being a “student and advocacy-driven event” shows individuals and organizations are seeing “a need for education, for healthy food, for promoting the idea of health and wellness.”
Through donations, The Lion’s Pantry was able to initiate “critical renovations to the pantry facility,” allowing the organization to offer more fresh options in the future through refrigeration and freezer options, Hohman said.
Fighting food insecurity at Penn State
Hohman said the garden projects are one way people in the Penn State community have gotten involved to fight food insecurity and hunger.
Anna Barone, the director of Student Care and Advocacy at Penn State, said a lack of access to nutritious food can have a variety of impacts on a student’s health and performance.
“When students don’t have ready access to nutritious food, their mental and emotional health [are] impacted, and they are unable to engage academically or socially, leading to feelings of isolation and despair, which can have a drastic impact on a student’s well-being,” Barone said via email.
Barone said a variety of initiatives across the university have made “a difference in the lives of students facing food insecurity,” including “cub pantries” across campus, the “Swipe Out Hunger” initiative, and Food and Housing Needs surveys.
Cub pantries are miniature versions of The Lion’s Pantry that are located in buildings and facilities around campus for students unable to find means or time to travel to the main pantry, according to The Lion’s Pantry website.
The cub pantries provide students with other accessible options to receive help when struggling with food insecurity, the website said.
During the April 2021 “Swipe Out Hunger” event, Penn State students raised over $29,000 for the Student Emergency Fund by donating dining dollars from their meal plans, according to a Penn State release.
Penn State held a “Swipe Out Hunger” event during the fall semester from Nov. 13-21, 2021, to coincide with national Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, the release said.
Students had the option of donating $5, $10 or $15 from their meal plans — including on mobile food orders — to the Student Emergency Fund.
The Student Emergency Fund program aids students facing unexpected crises by providing financial support through Student Care and Advocacy.
The “Swipe Out Hunger” event builds upon a 2019 pilot program called “Turn the Tables,” which aimed to tackle food insecurity at select food locations on campus.
Task force committee members from Penn State Housing and Food Services, Penn State Student Affairs, Challah for Hunger, Penn State Hillel and The Lion’s Pantry collaborative brought the “Swipe Out Hunger” national nonprofit program — known for working with more than 130 universities nationwide — to Penn State, according to a release.
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Penn State also released a Food and Housing Security Survey for a sample of students to complete by Dec.10, 2021, to provide the university with insight on “students’ experiences with food and housing insecurity,” according to a release.
In response to the survey’s distribution, Penn State President Eric Barron said in a release he “[encouraged] students, regardless of whether [they] personally experience food or housing insecurity, to participate in the survey. Collective input will help Penn State gauge the prevalence of this challenge and organize resources.”
In the release, Barron drew attention to the One Big Week campaign that ran from Sept. 12-18, 2021.
One Big Week, the weeklong fundraising campaign between Big Ten institutions, raised more than $214,000 to support the Student Emergency Funds from Penn State contributions, according to a release.
Together, Big Ten universities raised over $600,000, with Penn State contributing to more than a third of the total funds raised, the release said.
According to Hoffman, the 2019 Tackle Hunger Giving Challenge was a competition between Penn State and Ohio State that formed to raise monetary funding for Penn State’s Lion’s Pantry — at both University Park and commonwealth campuses — as well as Ohio State’s food pantries.
“That specific initiative rallied the entire nation and donors across the world — engaging the entire Penn State community worldwide,” Hohman said.
Barron created a task force in February 2020 to analyze the current food and housing insecurity issues impacting students at Penn State and develop approaches for the future.
Hohman said the creation of the task force demonstrates “the university itself, at the administration level, is acknowledging the fact that student food insecurity is such a prevalent issue at Penn State [and] not a hidden issue or something facing only a handful of students.”
Most recently in November 2021, Barron and his wife, Molly Barron, gave $525,000 to establish the Eric and Molly Barron Student Food Security Endowment, a fund to support the purchasing of meal plans for undergraduate students who experience food insecurity, according to a release.
“Way too often, students are making decisions between purchasing their textbooks and purchasing an adequate and nutritious lunch or choosing between paying their utility bills and buying dinner, and in that context, food is often the first thing to go,” Hohman said.
Hohman said the “real college experience” for many students is making “those hard decisions” and often “concessions on their adequate and nutritious diet.”
Peacock said she hopes the new Schreyer Pocket Garden expands people’s understanding of what food insecurity truly is, being both an education tool and a “physical reminder” of students food’ insecurity on campus.
“A lot of people may not even realize that they are facing food insecurity because it’s not necessarily what everyone thinks of when they think of hunger — because it’s not just being unable to afford food,” Peacock said. “But it’s really not being able to afford nutritious food or having a hard time finding it at an affordable price.”
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