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Gardening for life
Educational project promotes ecosystems

OXFORD - Emory University and Oxford College staff are getting students to think about sustainability and locally grown food - and maybe avoid gaining the infamous "Freshman 15" by eating healthier at the same time.

Several Oxford College staff members and a group of about 30 students started an Educational Garden Project in early April through the Office of Sustainability Initiatives at Emory University, which was formed in the fall of 2006.

"There has been a big sustainability movement in general across the country," said Gayle Doherty, an Oxford professor of dance and yoga who is helping to head the project. "Emory and Oxford are trying to make the students and (staff) more aware of the issues."

The Office of Sustainability Initiatives was created as the school's commitment to sustainability and to determine ways to develop a healthy ecosystem and university and a healthy living-learning-working community by providing education and research on such issues, according to the office's Web site.

"Our university culture will value connection to place, will encourage time in the out of doors and will teach about stewardship of our ecosystem, beginning with students' and employees' first moments on campus," reads its goals. Other goals include the development of a regional sustainable food system to support healthy, local food in campus dining, education about our industrial food system and emerging alternatives to foster ethical engagement with the consequences of our food purchases."

The Educational Garden Project at Oxford is one such way to make students, faculty and community members aware of the ability to buy locally grown food, grow some of their own food to avoid spending gas and to remain healthy.

In early April, student volunteers and staff members - headed up by Sociology Professor Michael McQuaide and with the help of Doherty, Theater Technical Specialist Cynthia Millsaps, Special Assistant to the Dean for Strategic Initiatives Erik Oliver and Assistant Director of Residence Life James Francois - started Phase One of the project by removing an area of grass near the school cafeteria and Haygood Hall.

They created a compost pile nearby with what they took out and have plans for the nearby cafeteria workers to throw out food scraps on it to be reused in the garden.

Next, the group planted dozens of plants and seeds - okra, basil, bush beans, squash zucchini, a variety of peppers and tomatoes and cucumbers.

"We put as many kinds as we could in there, local and seasonal," Doherty said. "It's an amazingly healthy garden."

The students cared for the garden until the end of the school year, and over the summer the involved faculty members are caring for it - watering, keeping bugs away and other maintenance.

"When (the students) come back in the fall, we will see what is still producing and pull out what is not producing and plant different seasonal foods," Doherty said.

Those who care for the garden are allowed to take the food its produces, Doherty said. In the future, the group hopes the school's culinary club will use it sometime. The group also may create a garden in another spot on campus.

Doherty said she hopes by getting students and staff involved, it will encourage them to create a garden in their own spaces.

"Some of the students who wanted to help had their own gardens at home, and this helps them have one here since they aren't at home," Doherty said. "Other students may have grown up in the city and not had any exposure to farms. ... We want them to see they can grow some food themselves - you can grow tomatoes in a pot on your patio."

Doherty has already had staff members come up to her to tell her the garden has inspired them to start their own at home, which makes her happy to hear.

"It's pleasurable to plant something and watch it grow," she said. "But it's also a lot of work."

The garden is only one of many sustainability projects happening at Oxford and Emory; others include putting out barrels to collect rain water, placing solar panels on Haygood Hall and studying air quality.

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.