While most people dye their Easter eggs with store-bought food coloring, this year Western Washington University professor Gigi Berardi dyed hers with a very different substance: the burgundy-colored juice of beets grown in the gardens behind Arntzen Hall.
The gardens, fondly referred to as the Artzen garden by those who use them, are often filled with students learning about agroecology. Last year, together with the Outback Farm of Fairhaven College, Arntzen Gardens grew almost half a ton of fresh vegetables for the Bellingham Food Bank.
In addition to being a source of fresh produce for Bellingham’s hungry, the gardens help students gain hands-on experience with agriculture, Berardi said.
“It’s started a chain of dominos for me,” said Josiah Kobernik, a Fairhaven student who took an agroecology course from Berardi last spring.
The class taught him how to grow large quantities in a small space, knowledge he still uses when farming today, he said.
“When students get their hands in the soil, they really appreciate where their food comes from,” Berardi said.
Berardi sometimes takes this quite literally, Kobernik said. He recalled a time when Berardi asked her students to hold a handful of soil for half an hour, discussing its characteristics.
“Before that class, soil was soil. I didn’t know very much about it,” Kobernik said. In the class, Kobernik and his classmates learned how to efficiently use space in the gardens and how to properly nourish and prepare soil.
“It made me more aware of distinct differences between farms,” Kobernik said, “It’s changed how I function as a farmer.”
Fairhaven and environmental studies students are planning to plant seeds and prepare the beds for this year’s Food Bank donation. Last year, together with the Outback, Arntzen Gardens grew more than 800 pounds of fresh vegetables in eight beds for the food bank. The yield for this spring and fall might surpass that of last year, Berardi said.
“I think this illustrates the best of Western,” Berardi said. “It involves student leaders, many disciplines such as chemistry, sociology and geography, and it involves student research. It’s exactly the kind of thing we should be doing at Western. Plus it’s reaching out to the community.”
Eventually, Berardi said she would like to get her students involved in handling livestock at Whatcom County farms.
The Bellingham Food Bank itself also has a program in place that teaches agriculture, the Garden Project.
The food bank Garden Project is in its fourth year. Since its inception in 2010, each year staff and volunteers for the program have built about 25 raised garden beds for low-income homes and families. This year, the Garden Project will be building its 100th garden.
“The Bellingham Food Bank is committed to working with people who have fewer resources,” said Max Morange, the Food Bank’s agricultural programs coordinator. “Having a garden empowers people to take power and control of their food.”