New club promotes eating organic foods grown in the area

URBANA – Canned peas or fresh peas?

Rebecca Russell will take fresh vegetables any day. And if they were grown locally, well, that's even better.

Russell is the force behind a new University of Illinois student organization called Just.Food. She and other students want to raise awareness about the benefits of eating locally grown, organic produce.

"Food is such a basic thing for people. We want to get people to start thinking about how it comes to them," Russell said.

The group has big plans.

Not only are the students literally digging in and growing vegetables on the UI's South Farms, they're trying to figure out how to bring local produce to the UI. Earlier this spring, they met with staff from the UI's facilities and services and other faculty and staff who are interested in starting a pilot project to add more locally grown or organic produce into a dining hall. They'd also like to provide produce to Bevier Cafe, a restaurant run by UI hospitality students.

And there's more.

The club is also contemplating a mini-farmers' market where members of Just.Food and other student clubs would sell produce, plants and arts and crafts on the Quad.

A natural resources and environmental sciences major, Russell transferred to the UI in the fall of 2005 from Heartland Community College in Normal. She started posting fliers in the fall to gauge interest in such a group.

So far, about 40 people have signed up, and a core of about 15 will be available to help on and off throughout the summer.

The club has attracted the students you would expect – environmental studies or crop science majors – but also students contemplating majors in business or food science.

At first, Russell admits the initial volunteer work has not been too exciting. Activities involved writing grant proposals and navigating their way through the business of selling food. What are a restaurant's requirements for accepting food? How should you package food? What do you do with surplus produce?

As Wesley Jarrell put it, growing vegetables is one thing. Finding and building a market is another, said Jarrell, head of the UI's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

Thanks to Jarrell's department and the Illinois Natural History Survey, the club has about three-quarters of an acre at the southeast corner of First Street and Windsor Road.

As expected, not everything has gone seamlessly. Students recently transplanted kale, cabbage and leek plants and some plants didn't take the move from the greenhouse to the ground very well. Russell said they waited a little too long to plant them.

"Organic farming and gardening is knowledge- and labor-intensive," she said. And that's partly why Russell enjoys it.

It's OK if they make mistakes. They expected that, she said.

"There are many (members) who know about the principles of organic gardening, but haven't actually done it," said Russell, who has dabbled in gardening.

Much of the ground is covered in buckwheat and hairy vetch, plants that add nutrients to the soil. After tilling the ground, members will plant seeds for salad greens and other leafy vegetables. Eventually they'd like to grow squash, radishes, eggplants and other items.

In addition to helping the students by providing land, equipment and surplus seeds, several NRES faculty members have offered expertise and advice to the students, Russell said.

"We're also looking at coupling internships with their work on the farm to keep some students around for the summer," Jarrell said.

Another idea being floated around involves adding a food preservation or processing component to the club, so students can learn how to prepare fresh vegetables for consumption or how to freeze them, Jarrell said.

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