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USF Students Get Their Green Thumbs In A Veggie Garden

Think back to the last time you had a salad.

Was it one of those bags that you buy at a store, tear open some envelopes with the various ingredients, mix and eat?

Or are you one of those folks with a green thumb who takes your vegetables all the way from seed to the salad bowl?

Well there’s a class at the University of South Florida that’s trying to turn students from the former into the latter.

The undergraduate level course, Introduction to Food Studies, is taught by Sarah Dykins Callahan, a Senior Instructor in Humanities and Cultural Studies. While there’s some reading and research involved, she said the main lessons are taught through hands-on activity.

"Since it’s Introduction to Food Studies, I’d like them to develop an understanding through doing, thru actually gardening, about how food is produced, and the importance of our food systems," she said. 

During the semester, students plant and tend to their own vegetable garden at the USF Botanical Gardens. The hope is that it opens their eyes to just how much work goes into what goes on their plates. At the same time, Dykins Callahan wants to show the students how to eat healthier.

Credit Jesse McLane / WUSF TV
A student takes a picture of the tomatoes the class grew.

"So for instance, we don’t use pesticides, we don’t use herbicides, students either use organic alternatives to that, or they pick pests off with their fingers," she said. "So I think this helps them better understand some of the practices worldwide that lead to the development of our food systems."

The lessons paid off for some of the students.

Computer science engineering junior Gabriel Beltres said he came into the class as someone who liked having his steak with a side dish of more steak. That has changed.

"I do eat a lot more vegetables, broccoli, spinach specifically, those are my go-to’s. I eat a lot less meat now – I still eat meat, but nowhere near as much, I stick more to beans for the protein," he said. "Basically simple ingredients, the less ingredients, if you can understand the ingredients, then it’s probably good for you."

And biomedical sciences junior Maria Gorbea is more conscious of what she’s looking for when she’s shopping.

"Before I just kind of went to the supermarket and bought whatever, but now that we’ve learned so many things about the food industry, and things like that, it opened my eyes, so now I actually want to see what I’m purchasing," she said.

Credit Jesse McLane / WUSF TV
Some of the tomatoes grown by the class.

Students this year planted lettuce, onions, carrots, cucumbers, arugula, and, for the first time in the class, tomatoes.

"Tomatoes can be difficult to grow, and so I warned them of that, and they have been vigilant, in taking care of their tomato plants," Dykins Callahan said.

To wrap the semester up, the class gathered at the Botanical Gardens to harvest the crops that were ready.

"I was surprised to see how much lettuce we had, because we planted three and six came up, so we had a lot of lettuce," Russian studies junior Alec Roller said, adding, "it was really nice to see the plot get greener as time went on."

And biomedical sciences senior Abby Williams won an unofficial class competition by growing the largest cucumber.

"It was very exciting!" she said. "It popped up, probably like last week, and then it just grew, and it didn’t stop."

Then, they got to eat their homework at a potluck held there in the garden, featuring their vegetables as the centerpiece.

"We’ll wash them off, and give them a  good rinse, three times or so,  and then the students will prepare them, and by prepare them we mean just cutting them up, and tossing them into a salad bowl," Dykins Callahan said.

And she added, by sitting down together to eat their own vegetables, the students should hopefully appreciate food in a different way.

"I think it significantly alters their understanding of their relationships to food," she said. "And so, touching the dirt, cultivating the dirt, removing insects from plants, gives them an embodied understanding of what it means to actually grow food, and then consume that food, something that we don’t have many opportunities to do today."

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