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An Afternoon With Edible Campus

By Sophia Raspanti

Last week, I sat down with Kyle Parker, the Campus Coordinator of Edible Campus, an organization dedicated to creating working landscapes across the UNC-Chapel Hill Campus.  

“It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion,” says Parker. His words are absolutely correct. To most students, Edible Campus is the organization behind the multitude of small gardens – called satellite plots – that can be found on campus. While these students are correct, Edible Campus offers so much more: much more that is too-often overlooked.    


What is Edible Campus?  

“The gardens are never locked,” Parker states as he looks over the rows of fresh produce soaking up sunshine behind Davis Library. Throughout the day, and especially as spring weather sets in, students wander to the garden to study, spend time with friends, and look at the variety of fresh produce available. Volunteers pass through the garden to weed and water the plots. All of the produce in the gardens are available for students to pick for their own use. There are currently 10 satellite gardens that can be found in various spaces around campus, many found outside dining halls and common outdoor areas.   

Throughout the year, Edible Campus also hosts a variety of creative events in the garden, from the wildly popular Harvest Moon Festival in the fall, to a week filled with activities to celebrate the Earth and the beauty of the world around us. During Earth Week, Edible Campus partners with campus organizations including ArtsEverywhere, Carolina Cupboard, and the University Library System to host movie nights, planting days, and creative programs. In the fall, environmental science students enter the gardens to learn and practice a variety of activities, including soil testing and plant propagation.   

Edible Campus is a part of a greater system of beautiful outdoor spaces found on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus: the North Carolina Botanical Gardens. Edible Campus is a community outreach program for the UNC community, and many gardeners that enjoy working in the satellite gardens can also be found in the Botanical Gardens, such as the beautiful Coker Arboretum found on North Campus. While Edible Campus has begun to take on a unique identity from the Botanical Gardens, the two still work closely together to create and improve outdoor programs and initiatives on campus. Recently, the Botanical Gardens and Edible Campus will be working on the “Budburst Program”, in which students can work to measure pollination rates on campus.   


The History: How It All Started   

While Edible Campus has become an integral part of UNC, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, Edible Campus may not have been a part of UNC if it had not been for a student and Chancellor’s Fellow in 2015: Emily Auerbach.    

In 2015, Emily Auerbach, a UNC graduate and Chancellor’s Fellow planted the seed. For her senior thesis project, Auerbach aimed to create “the nation’s first public university where edible and medicinal plants are integrated into landscapes throughout campus.” Auerbach wanted to create outdoor landscapes where education, workshops, events, and fresh food could be available for all students. Auerbach’s vision reached Carol Folt, the Chancellor of UNC at the time. Following her graduation, Folt hired Auerbach as a Chancellor’s fellow in order to create a feasibility report on the landscapes that included information on sunlight viability, soil composition, and proximity to water. After receiving the report, Folt contributed $150,000 to the project and landscaping was done to prepare the land for the gardens. Many campus and community volunteers came together for the first day of planting, putting in over 300 plants and trees across five different campus garden sites.  

Following the end of Auerbach’s fellowship, Edible Campus became a part of the North Carolina Botanical Gardens as a community outreach program. Laura Mindlin took charge as the UNC Edible Campus Coordinator until 2020, when she then departed for graduate school. Following Mindlin’s departure,  Kyle Parker became a part-time horticultural specialist.  

Parker had worked with the gardens for almost two years when Laura Mindlin announced her plans to return to graduate school, leaving an open position for the Campus Garden Coordinator, but as Parker stepped up, COVID-19 stepped in, leading to a campus-wide hiring freeze. While students and faculty went into lockdown, the gardens would largely be abandoned, leading to a pause in the garden’s operations. Parker worked diligently to plant cover crops in the plots to preserve them, and when the hiring freeze ended in the fall of 2020, Parker was hired full-time as Coordinator of Edible Gardens. Since then, Parker has made it his mission to bring the gardens to as many students as possible and started working with groups of students to make them more accessible for all.   


Student Involvement: The Student Leadership Team  

Parker smiled as he spoke about the Student Leadership Team, a group of students he works with to continue Edible Garden’s mission. The student leadership team is both a volunteer and paid-position for work-study students, and Parker has ensured that much of the funds for Edible Campus go towards paying the students livable wages. Parker also hosts summer interns at the gardens as well as any students that would like to volunteer.   

The Student Leadership Team works on multitudes of essential projects to ensure the smooth operations of the gardens -- including writing grants, creating posts for social media, and collaborating with other campus organizations. The students are currently working on expanding internet access to outdoor garden spaces and putting in lights so that students may study outdoors later in the evening. Additionally, the student leadership team has also created many exciting projects together, including the Carolina Cookbook: A College Student’s Guide to Healthy, Affordable, & Seasonal Eating at Carolina, which can be found on the Edible Campus website.   

Student involvement in the gardens doesn’t stop with student leadership and volunteering. Edible Campus partners with a variety of campus organizations including Student Government, ArtsEverywhere, Davis Library, Carolina Cupboard, the Residence Hall Association, Carolina Dining Services, Sustainable Carolina, and more. Together, Edible Campus and their partners bring arts, creative spaces, fresh food, and more to the student body at Carolina. Students hope to expand the gardens to the Gilling’s School of Public Health as well as additional places on South Campus.   

Computer science students have created an interactive plant map that shows what’s growing in each satellite gardens, so that students foraging for produce know exactly where to look. The map also includes nutritional and cooking information.   


Looking Towards the Future: The Garden Blossoms  

Edible Campus has become a beloved part of life at UNC, and many other universities are looking to follow suit. Parker has begun to work as a consultant with other U.S. universities, as well as universities in Italy, Germany, and other nations abroad. Looking towards the future, Parker says that UNC students have much to look forwards to from the gardens, with programs such as horticultural therapy at the Botanical Gardens, and the new Budburst Program, a community science initiative in which all campus and community members can help contribute to scientific knowledge on pollinator species.   


Final Thoughts  

My interview with Parker opened my eyes to the many initiatives and opportunities Edible Campus offers to students, as well as left me with a smile on my face. In Parker’s words: “this is a space where there are basically zero negative interactions,” and I’d have to agree. In these last few weeks before my student career at Carolina comes to an end, I am now most often found behind Davis Library, enjoying the sunshine, and planting a few new seeds at Carolina.   


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