The Teaching Bioshelter: A Missing Resource for Sustainability Education

Journal of Sustainability Education - Thu, 2020-02-13 16:16


Stokoe JSE General Fall 2019 PDF

Link to JSE General Issue Fall 2019 TOC

Abstract:  The new educational revolution of Educating for Sustainability needs to be taught in a new, revolutionary teaching space; a teaching bioshelter. Drawing on the five ecological principles of the Center for Ecoliteracy, this new teaching space should reflect ecocentric design principles, rather than the previous anthropocentric industrial designs of our current school and college classrooms and campuses. A solar-powered, living classroom, a system of systems, such as a teaching bioshelter, opens new educational horizons by providing continuously available and hands-on learning environments not currently available to the Educating for Sustainability (EfS) curriculum. Fortunately, the architectural and technical design work for these kinds of spaces was pioneered nearly 50 years ago by numerous cutting-edge research groups, such as the New Alchemy Institute. It is suggested that these two ecological flows, of design and education, be joined to enhance and expand the mission of Educating for Sustainability.

Keywords:  teaching bioshelter, classroom for EfS curriculum, teaching systems thinking, the third teacher, hands-on sustainability education, humanities and EfS, ecocentric design

Figure 1: Photo credit: Scott Stokoe.

“What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught, rather, it is in large part due to the child’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources.”

Loris Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children


There is an educational revolution underway in western culture. Fired and directed by the rising challenges of social and environmental sustainability, the Educating for Sustainability (EfS) movement is dedicated to transforming educational systems using content and pedagogy required for the coming cultural transition (Federico, Cloud, Byrne, & Wheeler, 2003). Thus, there is significant focus today on both the content and the style of this educational transformation. However, there is another element of the educational system that is not currently engaged in this pedagogic reformation. This element was identified by the Italian educator and thinker, Loris Malaguzzi, an Italian early childhood educational innovator who recognized that not all learning flows from well-intended adults.

Figure 2: Aquaculture tank in a teaching bioshelter. Photo credit: Scott Stokoe.

Referred to as “the third teacher,” Malaguzzi realized that beyond the adult activity and contact with other learners, students learn by interacting with the physical world around them (Biermeier, 2015). It is this material learning environment, as a conscious and developed educational element, that has not kept pace with the cascading flow of curricular evolution in EfS. From his ground-breaking work in early childhood education, Malaguzzi identified physical experiences and manipulables as a crucial and often overlooked component of educational design. His contributions made significant impacts in pre-school and early elementary education (Biermeier, 2015). However, as we move to the upper grades, the intellectual experience is held to be primary, often at the expense of physical, tactile and sensual reinforcement of ideas. The school building and campus, except perhaps for whiteboards and screens, are often ignored as an educational affordance. By the time we get to high school, the “third teacher” is all but lost to the educational process. There are exceptions, such as field trips and lab experiences, yet, for secondary and higher education, the field of education typically undervalues and underutilizes the role of the physical environment, including the school architecture and grounds, in a student’s learning process. From Malaguzzi’s perspective, one of the three teachers is diminished, if not lost.

Figure 3: Photo credit: Rubén Rodriguez

Western civilization is now facing what many consider to be an existential cultural crisis (Orr, 1992) based on the current western dualistic anthropocentric perspective. Educating for Sustainability can and must rise to meet this challenge.   But what if the learning environment is actually holding back the teaching of ecological literacy and systems thinking, the fundamentals that are the heart of EfS pedagogy? What if the majority of the nation’s classrooms continue to reflect the values and assumptions of the failed industrial paradigm?  And that the imbalanced emphasis on the mind, to the exclusion of the physical world, only serves to validate the current  dualistic anthropocentric perspective? Perhaps it is time to pursue a classroom, a resource room, a living laboratory that reflects ecological principles; a teaching space based on a system of systems; an educational milieu that offers the values and concepts that are the core of EfS. To provide this ecological “third teacher” will require us to follow the lead of many successful indigenous cultures who have always embraced an ecocentric perspective. We must create a design process that resonates with the values and processes of ecological principles. Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch.  This ecological design process was successfully pioneered decades earlier by numerous organizations and designers. The work of one of these groups holds particular promise for the development of a new teaching space for the EfS movement.

Figure 4: New Alchemy Institute “Ark.” Photo credit: Earle Barnhart

 In the late 1960’s a small group of scientists began to explore an ecological basis for culture.  Founded on Cape Cod, the New Alchemy Institute (NAI) pursued research focused on a radical design of renewable energy and sustainable agriculture systems (J. Todd, Todd, & Todd, 1980). Their work ranged from organic agriculture, tree crops and aquaculture to wind and solar energy systems and design. One of their most recognized and celebrated innovations was the creation of a new kind of building, a building based on ecological principles and the synergistic integration of food and energy systems. To highlight the importance of this innovative design process, they called this new building a bioshelter.

This building has qualities that seem familiar on the surface. Many people see it as a “greenhouse”. Yet the building design reflects a transformative set of values and rules, while still producing energy, food and clean water.  To distinguish this ecologically designed space from traditional greenhouse spaces, the creators designated it a “bio-shelter”. This shelter-of-life reflected an iconoclastic shift for western design in the role of humans in the material world. Rather than an anthropocentric perspective of “owning” and “using” the natural environment, these researchers chose an ecocentric design framework that abided by the rules and limits of ecosystems, a design criteria that placed humans back into the living systems of the planet (T. Todd, Todd, & Todd, 1984). This same ecocentric shift, twenty years later, is a core component of the EfS revolution, one of the signiture qualities that distinguishes EfS from environmental education (Federico et al., 2003). EfS developers and practitioners have broadly adopted this new perspective. An excellent example of this shift to ecological values is exemplified in the work of the Center for Ecoliteracy.

Established in 1995, the Center for Ecoliteracy of Berkeley, California, has been developing educational content for schools to incorporate the ecological paradigm into classroom teaching. In the process, they have developed an outstanding distillation of ecological thinking and values into a simple list that can be used throughout the K-12 curriculum. Titled the “Five Ecological Principles” (Stone, 2012) these concepts echo the same ecocentric perspective that guided the design, decades earlier, of the NAI bioshelters (see below). What NAI brought to building design in the 1960’s and 70’s became a defining focus of EfS practitioners like the Center for Ecoliteracy in the 1990’s. Both provide a more sustainable way forward through an ecocentric framework.

Figure 5: Content: Center for Ecoliteracy, Background Photo credit: Dhruva Reddy

Due to the scientific research mission of their work, none of the New Alchemy bioshelters were ever dedicated solely to the mission of educating for sustainability for the general population.  This potential had to wait for the EfS revolution. I suggest that the label of “teaching bioshelters” be used to designate a new teaching space that combines the physical and intellectual achievements of NAI with the pedagogic developments of EfS. Rather than research and production, this bioshelter is dedicated to education. The mission of the teaching bioshelter is to provide the physical and intellectual affordances for the teaching of ecological literacy and systems thinking and thus provide the missing physical experience of the “third teacher” for EfS.

Nearly every single classroom in the nation today separates the learner from the living world (Orr, 1992). Very few schools have accessible, manipulable and working renewable energy systems available to the teachers and students. Most of the flows of materials through the school, including food, wastes and water, are handled by employees and kept away from students. By design, the living world is almost completely barred from most human spaces, including school buildings. This means students are denied exposure to the living systems upon which they and all life depend. True ecological literacy called for by EfS will require personal and extended exposure to and taking responsibility for living systems (Orr, 2004). A teaching bioshelter provides these affordances to create the necessary deep and meaningful ecological experiences that lead to literacy.

Figure 6: A proposed teaching bioshelter. Design: Scott Stokoe, Rendering: Banwell Architects.

Imagine a teaching bioshelter being attached to an existing school building. Imagine that this space is devoted to creating educational experiences that support and expand the intellectual experience now being pioneered by EfS across the entire curriculum. Imagine that the experience is scaled large enough to remove any sense of mastery or control of the key ecological systems in this space, a true shift from an anthropocentric learning environment to an ecocentric learning environment. By providing students manual and personal, as well as intellectual experiences of ecological literacy and systems thinking in real life, the teaching bioshelter represents the physical corollary to the pedagogic transformation being undertaken by EfS. It would become the “resource room” for all EfS learning across the entire school curriculum.

Over the past decades, two New England colleges have developed teaching bioshelters at their campuses.  Use of these bioshelters was based on singular faculty interest and did not reflect an institutional vision nor commitment to EfS. The lack of institutional curricular commitment to EfS goals and values resulted in the underutilization of these facilities.  However, with the rise of current EfS efforts, there is an emerging interest in creating new learning environments to better support EfS pedagogy. A northern New England public high school has begun a long-term process for developing such a teaching space. The present effort includes a teaching bioshelter design and the utilization of professional curricular design help in creating and incorporating EfS units for existing teachers and classes.  From these preliminary efforts and experiences, I have identified some important insights that can guide the development of a teaching bioshelter at a school or college, in pursuit of an EfS curriculum.

First, an EfS curriculum should create the demand for infrastructure development. Each school or college must have a demonstrated need for a new teaching space based on the active development of EfS curricula in the institution.  A chemistry lab in a school without a chemistry program and curriculum will very quickly become a storage space. At a minimum, this EfS curricular commitment must include universal applications of ecological literacy and systems thinking throughout the entire institution’s offerings. This level of educational change will likely require the entire organization, including administrators, teachers, families as well as students, to shape and embrace this educational evolution. Without this commitment, the investment in a teaching bioshelter is not prudent.

Figure 7: Vermiculture. Photo credit: Scott Stokoe.

Second, teaching in the bioshelter is an opportunity to bring a material and manipulable experience to the intellectual process.  This integration brings an authenticity not normally found in written, oral or visual experiences and engages learning pathways that can more deeply instill the informational content of the lesson plan. However, it requires a facility and pedagogic skill set beyond the usual academic achievement, for both students and teachers. Faculty will need time for skill-building and curriculum development that will effectively utilize physical experiences for learning. Although the sciences frequently use this approach in lab activities, it can also be a powerful and meaningful expansion for humanities education as well. To fully utilize this resource, the curricular effort must include the arts as well as the sciences. Imagine an American environmental history unit based on students growing and processing a crop of cotton. With students responsible for growing cotton in the teaching bioshelter and then processing the raw material for market, these students would have a very different understanding of agricultural slavery, the value of technology and their impact on socio-economic American history. With the participation of all departments and disciplines, the full potential of a teaching bioshelter can be realized, but it will require conscious and meaningful educational change.

Third, this pedagogical shift represents an enormous challenge. Few teachers have had these kinds of educational experiences included in their own education. The teaching bioshelter requires practical and applied skills not included in pre-service teacher training. It relies either on the individual experiences of the teachers or will require a “media specialist” similar to a librarian, for example, to create and maintain the affordances of the bioshelter. This is a significant barrier for the inclusion of this radical teaching resource. It will require either additional resources for a new position or a faculty committee to step up with training and commitment, to plan, develop and manage the various systems and elements of a teaching bioshelter. No matter how high, this challenge can be addressed as a part of an institutional commitment to the adoption of EfS, but it must be clearly understood and provided for before construction. This places a burden for change on local educational communities, communities that are consistently under-resourced and under ever expanding expectations. Yet, individual teachers, principals and schools have already begun to explore this new terrain of EfS. Professional curriculum development help is making excellent headway in bringing change to our schools. Various EfS resource non-profits exist and are actively providing support and vision. Furthermore, professional standards and benchmarks are emerging (Cloud, 2017). These same organizations can provide the training and support for effective inclusion of a bioshelter resource center at a school or college.

Figure 8: Integration of aquaculture and agriculture. Photo credit: Scott Stokoe.

 The list of potential teaching bioshelter-based educational experiences is long. Some of the immediate themes with high social impact are renewable energy, water, and sustainable food and waste cycling systems. The energy systems could include passive solar heating, energy conservation, biofuels, energy storage systems, photovoltaics, and wind systems.  Food systems could include both aquatic and terrestrial systems with the special opportunity for integration of these two.  These activities could include solar gardening, integrated multi-trophic aquaponics, algaculture, ecological pest management, and soil-based nutrient cycling. A working water system, from collection, storage and processing to water-use and water treatment systems and practices, could be taught.  And finally, working examples of waste processing and their role in closing material loops could be made available. These could include composting systems, anaerobic digesters, human waste capture and processing, and vermiculture. All of these systems and technologies will play a part in a more sustainable future. Yet, they are rarely accessible to students and teachers in our extant school architecture and curricula. A teaching bioshelter can take a lead role in addressing these deficiencies.

Although these topics might appear to be focused solely on science and technology, the opportunity to develop environmental humanities for this space are limitless. With the “greening of the humanities” underway in higher education, we are witnessing a rise in academic connections to the material world in the arts and humanities, such as environmental history, ecocriticism, ecological ethics and ecological economics (Parini, 1995). This transition will support the social and political changes that will be necessary, by applying ecological principles to human systems as well as physical systems. The development of humanities units for use in the bioshelter would flow directly from the existing humanities curriculum. Specific topics or content that are already being taught can be linked to specific activities and experiences in the teaching bioshelter, as in the previously mentioned cotton unit for American history. Other examples might include a contemporary fiction English class growing a crop of potatoes in the bioshelter while reading about and analyzing the role of environmental services of earth that are found in the novel “The Martian.” A high school economics class could study the limits and restraints on unlimited growth by studying the carrying capacity of a food or energy system in the teaching bioshelter. The importance of the humanities in developing a more sustainable culture is often overlooked. Many believe that it is our value and cultural system that must evolve to a more ecological basis before effective and lasting physical and technological fixes will succeed; that not only must the humanities participate in this epistemological shift, some believe that the humanities are well suited to lead this change (Glotfelty & Fromm, 1996). Thus, the humanities will find great educational opportunities, as well as the sciences, in this new teaching space, based on the adoption of EfS.

A teaching bioshelter at a school or college must be the outgrowth and product of the development of a system-wide adoption of EfS curricula. To build a new structure without school-wide adoption of EfS would be imprudent. But as the EfS revolution unfolds, more and more aspects of the educational system will become involved and modified to serve this new mission. Malaguzzi’s vision of the “third teacher,” the non-curricular component of the educational experience must be harnessed by providing a teaching bioshelter as the logical extension of an EfS curriculum. This physical manifestation of ecological principles provides both the content and the culture of sustainability necessary to prepare our students for the social and environmental challenges that lay ahead.

Figure 9: Setting up aquaculture tanks. Photo credit: Scott Stokoe.

Works Cited

Biermeier, M. A. (2015). Inspired by Reggio Emilia: Emergent curriculum in relationship-driven learning environments. YC Young Children, 70(5), 72–79.

Cloud, J. (2017). Education for A Sustainable Future, Benchmarks: For Individual and Social Learning. Journal of Sustainability Education, 1–66.

Federico, C. M., Cloud, J. P., Byrne, J., & Wheeler, K. (2003). Kindergarten through twelfth-grade education for sustainability. Environmental Law Reporter News and Analysis, 33(2), 10117–10131.

Glotfelty, C., & Fromm, H. (1996). The ecocriticism reader : landmarks in literary ecology. Athens, Ga: Univ. of Georgia Press.

Orr, D. W. (1992). Ecological literacy : education and the transition to a postmodern world. Albany (NY): State University of New York Press.

Orr, D. W. (2004). Earth in mind : on education, environment, and the human prospect. Retrieved from

Parini, J. (1995). The Greening of the Humanities. New York: The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

Stone, M. K. (2012). Applying Ecological Principles. Retrieved from

Todd, J., Todd, J., & Todd, N. (1980). Tomorrow is our permanent address : the search for an ecological science of design as embodied in the bioshelter. New York: Harper & Row.

Todd, T., Todd, N., & Todd, J. (1984). Bioshelters, ocean arks, city farming : ecology as the basis of design. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.


Categories: Research

Using sustainability education to enhance a sense of belonging and community among first-year college students

Journal of Sustainability Education - Thu, 2020-02-13 15:20


Lewis et all JSE General Fall 2019 Issue PDF

Link to the JSE General Issue Fall 2019


On campuses across the world, faculty, staff, and administrators continue to wrestle with how best to foster a stronger sense of belonging and community among first-year college students. Research in the field of education for sustainability (EfS) suggests that utilizing a cohort-based approach to sustainability education can lead to a number of positive outcomes for participating students and the broader campus culture. Meanwhile, student affairs research demonstrates the value of living/learning communities (LLCs) in supporting undergraduate students as they transition to college. This paper showcases the experience of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in implementing a sustainability-themed LLC on its campus, highlighting how one institution is utilizing sustainability education to build community among first-year college students.

Keywords: sustainability education, living/learning communities (LLCs), first-year education, liberal arts



“Sustainability—if it is to exist—has to be felt and practiced” (DeLind & Link, 2004, 



Every morning we wake up to confront the fact that the fate of our planet is far from certain. Around the world, ‘wicked problems’ abound, leaving many feeling overwhelmed and/or despairing about what it is going to take for us to change course. Research in the field of education for sustainability (EfS) suggests that institutions of higher education are uniquely positioned to forge today’s undergraduate students into the sustainability-minded leaders needed to create a more equitable, just, and, ultimately, hopeful future. One means by which colleges and universities can begin to affect change in their student body is to create spaces for transformative learning to occur. According to Howlett, Ferreira, & Blomfield (2016), this form of learning allows us “to integrate, connect, confront and reconcile multiple ways of looking at the world” (p.307). Arguably, we can enhance the power of transformative learning by taking advantage of a cohort-based approach to sustainability education. Recent research suggests “the culture of a community of practice engaged in sustainability education can be an antidote to debilitating pessimism” (McClam et al., 2015, n.p.) brought about by higher education’s often acute focus on the origins and impacts of wicked problems rather than how best to solve these issues. In other words, cultivating sustainability-oriented communities for practice allows for the development of ‘clear-eyed hope’, or the type of hope (and agency) that emerges when one understands “the depth and breadth of the challenges faced” (Evans, 2015, n.p.) but still chooses to act anyway (see also McClam et al., 2015).

Our ability to forge sustainability-oriented communities of practice on college campuses is also likely contingent on us embracing the fact that much of what students learn while in college does not happen in the classroom. As such, Barth et al. (2007) argue that “learning environments should be designed in a way that…enable[s] informal, …unconscious learning” (p.421) to proliferate. While faculty often encourage their students to continue learning after leaving the classroom, we can further our efforts to develop the type of cultural shifts we desire by working alongside student affairs personnel to develop and implement sustainability-themed living/ learning communities (LLCs). By combining curricular, co-curricular, and residential components to encourage cohort-based exploration and collaboration of important topics such as sustainability, LLCs can foster “a high quality and enduring educational experience” (Stassen, 2003, p.585) for the students, faculty, and staff participating in these intentional communities. Arguably, the most effective LLCs “capitalize on community settings to create opportunities for learning wherever and whenever it occurs” (Katz, 2015, p.3).  Simultaneously, LLCs foster intentional overlaps between students’ academic and social lives, fostering an environment in which students can better integrate into the social fabric of a college and intentionally cultivate connections between academic and personal experiences (Gerdes & Mallinckrodt, 1994).

In the pages that follow, we highlight how Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a small liberal arts college situated in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, is utilizing a sustainability-themed LLC to build community among first-year students on its campus. We first provide a brief overview of the Sustainable Living and Learning Community (SLLC) Program before transitioning into a discussion of our study approach and preliminary findings. We close by reiterating that sustainability-themed LLCs have the potential to not only build stronger partnerships between academic affairs and student affairs but also enhance our students’ ability to integrate their academic and social lives in ways that may ultimately lead them to affect positive change in the world.

Our Program 

Each fall since 2014, the 42 to 58 first-year students who report an interest in sustainability on their academic intake forms join the SLLC Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Upon arriving on campus, SLLC students move into traditional, corridor-style housing in an all gender residence hall situated next door to the Environmental Studies offices. On each floor of the residence hall, SLLC students have access to a hybrid study/social space, where for 85 minutes at a time, faculty members from the Environmental Studies (ES) Program join a group of 14 to 16 SLLC students for twice weekly class meetings. The fall semester class, a first-year seminar entitled “Sustainable Living and Learning,” asks students to (re)examine the relationship between sustainability and consumption across space and time through engagement in a guided exploration of sustainability topics such as waste, food, and sense of place. Fall assignments range from low-stakes reading responses and reflective journals to a more substantial academic research project analyzing the impacts of everyday objects/products such as plastic microbeads or coffee. In comparison with other LLCs that include only a one-semester commitment, the SLLC student experience spans a full academic year. In the spring semester “Campus Sustainability” course, SLLC students continue to investigate the challenges of sustainable consumption through completing units on climate change, energy, and water. Students continue to complete reading responses and reflective journals while the focus of the students’ research efforts shifts toward enhancing sustainability efforts on the HWS campus. Completed in teams of two to four students, the campus sustainability intervention project centers on the identification of a campus sustainability issue and the development of an evidence-based proposal for how best to address this issue. Meanwhile, each semester includes a series of experiential learning activities—completed during a common 85- to 165-minute lab period—that bolster the SLLC Program’s course content. Designed to bring abstract sustainability concepts to life in more concrete ways, these activities include regular visits to the campus farm, personal sustainability experiments such as waste and closet audits, and field trips to the local farmer’s market, a nearby landfill, and a fracking site in an adjacent state. For a more detailed description of the SLLC Program and its approach to sustainability education, see Lewis et al. (2019).

Research shows that collaboration between academic and student affairs is central to the success of LLCs on college campuses (Messineo, 2012). Therefore, as the first multi-semester LLC implemented at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, institutional support for the SLLC Program is significant (Figure 1), bringing faculty, administrators, and more experienced undergraduate students from across campus together to actively support SLLC students as they transition to college. Each year, depending on staffing capabilities and resource availability, two to four ES faculty members, who initially received modest financial stipends for their leadership in the Program, teach the linked fall and spring courses while also serving as SLLC students’ academic advisors. In the classroom, SLLC faculty often work alongside a team of undergraduate peer mentors—teaching colleagues (TCs) and writing colleagues (WCs)—who serve as academic and co-curricular role models to our students. In addition to gaining leadership experience, our undergraduate collaborators are offered course credit for their contributions to the SLLC Program. The SLLC team also includes professional staff from the Division of Campus Life and Office of Residential Education—live-in residence life staff, the director of 


Figure 1 Administrative structure for the first three years of the Sustainable Living and Learning Community (SLLC) Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (adapted from Lewis et al., 2019).

residential education, and the assistant vice president for campus life—provide expertise on how best to capitalize on the social environment provided in SLLC to enhance the students’ academic experiences. In addition, the SLLC Program’s team of professional staff works alongside faculty and student leaders to host co-curricular events that brings course concepts to life in the residence hall.  For instance, undergraduate residential assistants (RAs) work alongside TCs to host co-curricular events such as clothing swaps, applesauce making, etc. that seamlessly integrate the principles of sustainability into residence hall programming. The team—faculty, staff, and undergraduate peer mentors— meets monthly to discuss student life, community development, and other programmatic endeavors.

Our Assessment Approach

In order to assess the impacts of the SLLC Program on first-year students and their sense of belonging, we utilize the Quality of Campus Experience survey (QCE), an internal assessment instrument developed by the HWS Division of Campus Life and Office of Residential Education in anticipation of the implementation of LLCs on our campus. Administered during a two-week period at the end of each spring semester, the QCE survey is comprised of twenty 5-point Likert scale questions (from 1= strongly disagree to 5= strongly agree) designed to measure student engagement and satisfaction across four domains:

  1. Social: Questions in the first domain analyze students’ level of satisfaction across six areas: enjoyment of hall activities, class-based interactions with other hall residents, active participation in hall activities, quantity of social activities offered in the residence hall, formation of long-lasting relationships with fellow hall members, and establishment of new friendships.
  2. Skills: The questions in the second domain assess students’ self-reported skills across five different areas: the ability to make positive decisions, awareness of on-campus resources, understanding of their contributions to the campus community, ability to be inclusive of others from diverse backgrounds, and understanding of the value of others’ opinions.
  3. Academic Environment: Questions in the third domain evaluate students’ perceptions of the residence hall’s academic environment across four areas: ability to hold peers accountable, peers’ sensitivity to quiet hours, ability to study in one’s room, and overall satisfaction with the noise level.
  4. Satisfaction: Questions in the fourth domain measure the students’ level of overall satisfaction across five areas: quality of living environment, enjoyment of living environment, ability to be involved on campus, the availability of off-campus community engagement opportunities, and quality of study/social spaces on campus.

The study population for this study is the 1,869 students matriculating to HWS between 2014 and 2016 and commencing their undergraduate studies in August (Table 1). During the first three years of the SLLC Program, 28.1% of first-year students at Hobart and William Smith Colleges completed our survey.  Notably, response rates ranged from 19.8% in Year 3 to 42.9% in Year 1. We attribute our declining response rate to our decision to shift from administering the QCE survey on paper during floor meetings in Year 1 to online survey administration in Years 2 and 3. 

In order to compare how SLLC students performed on the QCE survey relative to other first-year students at the Colleges, we stratified our sample into three subpopulations. The first 

Table 1 Number of survey respondents for the Colleges’ Quality of Campus Experience (QCE) Survey by subpopulation over the three-year study period. 

Academic year Study population

(# matriculated students) Subpopulations

(# matriculated students) SLLC Control Group Non-SLLC 2014-2015 648 40 60 278 2015-2016 635 10 11 131 2016-2017 586 15 9 116

subpopulation is comprised of the 65 respondents enrolled in the SLLC Program. The second subpopulation—the control group—is comprised of subset of 80 non-SLLC respondents with a similar gender makeup to the SLLC group who, like our students, live in traditional, corridor-style housing in an adjacent co-ed residence hall. The remaining first-year students who completed our survey comprise our third subpopulation—the non-SLLC group. These 525 first-year students also lived in traditional, corridor-style housing in either co-ed or single sex residence halls. Notably, neither the control group nor the non-SLLC group had access to hybrid social/study spaces similar to those available to SLLC students.

Due to variable response rates across the study period, we opted to aggregate all three years of QCE data into a single data set stratified by subpopulation. We then analyzed our data 

using descriptive statistics, calculating average scores (means) for each subpopulation on each of the survey’s twenty items. Given the preliminary nature of this study, we limited the scope of our initial analyses to determining how mean scores for the SLLC group compared to those of the control and non-SLLC groups.

Our Preliminary Findings

Over the course of the first three years of the SLLC Program, SLLC students consistently outperformed the control group in all 20 areas of student engagement and satisfaction assessed in this study (Figures 2 and 3). The SLLC group also consistently outperformed the non-SLLC group on 17 of 20 items included on the QCE survey (Figure 2). Notably, differences between the SLLC and non-SLLC group means on these three items were 0.10 points or less (Figure 3), suggesting nominal differences between the two groups in these particular areas of student engagement and satisfaction.

The largest average difference in means between the three subpopulations occurred in the social domain (Figure 2), in which SLLC students outperformed both the control and non-SLLC groups on all six items in this domain (Figure 3). For example, SLLC students indicated higher average levels of agreement with the “I have met many new friends in the residence hall” statement (=4.55) than either the control (=3.92) or non-SLLC (=3.86) groups. Similarly, the SLLC group reported greater agreement on the “I have formed long-lasting relationships with fellow hall members” question (=4.15) than both the control group (=3.66) and non-SLLC group (=3.57). When compared to other first-year students, students in the SLLC group, on average, also reported higher levels of agreement with the following statements: “Generally, I feel like an active participant in the hall” (=4.01); and, “I interact with students from my residence hall in classes” (=4.44).

Another area in which the SLLC group reliably outperformed students in the control and non-SLLC groups was in the overall satisfaction domain (Figure 2). The largest observed difference between SLLC students and their peers occurred in the overall level of satisfaction each group expressed with their respective living environments (Figure 3). SLLC students indicated higher average levels of agreement with the “I enjoyed the type of living environment I was assigned or selected” statement (=4.30) than either the control group (=3.68) or the non-SLLC group (=3.67). While the control and non-SLLC groups appeared more neutral with regard to their overall satisfaction concerning their time in the residence hall (=3.65 and =3.72, respectively), the SLLC group reported a higher average hall satisfaction (4.22). Given that only SLLC students had access to hybrid social/study spaces in the residence hall, it is also worth noting that SLLC students reported much higher average levels of agreement with the statement “I like the 

Figure 2 A comparison of three year average student engagement and satisfaction scores from the Quality of Campus Experience (QCE) by subpopulation 


Figure 3 Three year average student engagement and satisfaction scores from the Quality of Campus Experience (QCE) survey for our three subpopulations organized by domain. Darker shades of gray indicate higher levels of agreement with a given survey item.


amount of social space in my residence hall” (=4.33) than either the control (=3.41) or the non-SLLC (=3.25) groups.

Meanwhile, SLLC students, on average, did not consistently outperform the control or non-SLLC groups in either the skills or academic environment domains during the three-year study period (Figure 2). When considering the skills domain, the SLLC group did report slightly higher average levels of agreement with three out of five statements (i.e., opinion valuation, campus community contributions, and resource insight) (Figure 3). SLLC students reported nearly equal levels of agreement with the “I’m inclusive to students from diverse backgrounds” statement (=4.43) as the non-SLLC group (=4.43) and but slightly higher levels of agreement than the control group (=4.37). A similar pattern emerged with regard to how each of the three subpopulations rated their level of agreement on the “I have the tools to make positive decisions for myself” item on the survey instrument (Figure 3).

With regard to the academic environment domain, the SLLC group reported slightly higher average levels of agreement than both the control and non-SLLC groups on three out of four items assessed by the QCE survey (i.e., study ability, quiet hours, and peer accountability) (Figure 3). While SLLC students reported a slightly lower average level of agreement with the following statement: “The noise level on the floor is acceptable” (=3.42) than the non-SLLC group (=3.52), the SLLC group mean for this item still exceeded that of the control group (=3.18).

Key Take-Aways and Next Steps 

Research in both EfS and student affairs suggests that undergraduate students arrive on campus eager to feel like a part of something bigger. The benefits of LCs for first-year students’ transition to college and integration into the social and academic lives of the undergraduate experience is well-researched (Stassen, 2003; Tinto, Love, & Russo, 1994). One means by which to not only enhance students’ sense of belonging, but to restructure sometimes competing social and academic experiences, is to utilize a residential, cohort-based approach to sustainability education. As Stassen (2003) points out, the residential component is additive to the benefits of the cohort-based approach. Our experience implementing a sustainability-themed LLC on the Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ campus suggests that programs that more intentionally integrate the curricular, co-curricular, and residential components of undergraduate students’ experience can be quite effective in building community, particularly among first-year college students. 

Not only did SLLC students consistently outperform their peers with regard to forming new friendships and forging long-lasting relationships with their fellow hall members, but our students also reported that they felt like active participants in the hall. We interpret these findings as lending support to the argument that sustainable education can and should build community on college campuses. To bolster this argument, a cursory review of annual data compiled since the Colleges expanded its first-year program to include other thematically-focused LLCs (now known as the LLC Program) shows that differences in the scores of LLC students and non-LLC students were less remarkable than the differences in scores observed between SLLC and non-SLLC students. Moreover, when subgroups that measure LLC data by theme are created, the SLLC subgroup indicates that our sustainability-themed LLC continues to foster better social outcomes than any other LLC implemented on our campus to date. One could infer that the residentially-themed projects where students utilize their living arrangement as a living laboratory, such as the SLLC Program, better assist students in more easily connecting their academic experiences with their everyday lives as students.

The academic environment and skills-based outcomes of the SLLC Program, by comparison, are less clear. While we are already successful in encouraging peer accountability and study ability in the residence hall, our students still reported struggling to integrate their academic and social lives in consistently productive ways. For instance, SLLC students reported being less satisfied by the noise level in their residence hall than their peers did, an outcome that did not surprise or otherwise alarm us. After all, we intentionally set out to create a vibrant community of practice that provides students with the tools necessary to make positive decisions and affect change in both their academic and social lives. As we continue to tweak the SLLC Program and its structure and curriculum, we remain hopeful that additional program benefits will accrue. As Stassen (2003) points out, however, self-selection bias is an important consideration when evaluating the impacts of LLCs, particularly in cases where institutions allow students to choose whether to participate in or opt out of a LLC. 

Beyond its positive student outcomes, the SLLC Program is also spurring efforts to reimagine the first-year student experience at the Colleges. Prior to the first cohort of SLLC students arriving on campus in fall 2014, faculty and staff rarely had the opportunity to interact, let alone build and administer a program together. In addition, there were few institutional structures in place to encourage greater levels of intersection between students’ academic and social lives. The SLLC Program’s early successes continue to inspire new partnerships between Academic Affairs and Campus Life. Recent renovations of several other first-year residence halls mean that we can now support up to 12 LLCs of various size and configurations each year. As a result, more HWS students than ever have the opportunity to participate in a themed community of practice if they so choose. Meanwhile an increasing number of faculty are actively collaborating with colleagues in Campus Life, namely the Office of Residential Education, to develop innovative curricular, co-curricular, and residential programming for our students.

While we have yet to conclude that the SLLC Program is achieving all of its initial goals, we are encouraged by what we have been able to achieve in three short years. In addition to being able to foster a stronger sense of belonging and community among first-year students using sustainability education, we are beginning to witness the ways in which increasing opportunities for faculty-staff collaboration can enhance the quality of everyone’s campus experiences.


Barth, M., Godemann, J., Rieckmann, M., & Stoltenberg, U. (2007). Developing key competencies for sustainable development in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 8(4), 416-430.

Evans, T.L. (2015). Finding heart: Generating and maintaining hope and agency through sustainability education.  Journal of Sustainability Education, 10. Retrieved from maintaining-hope-and-agency-through-sustainability-education_2015_11/

Delind, L.B. & Link, T. (2004). Place as the nexus of a sustainable future: A course for all of us. In P.F. Bartlett & G.W. Chase (Eds.), Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change (pp.121-137). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gerdes, H. and Mallinekrodt, B. (1994). Emotional, social, and academic adjustment of college students: A longitudinal study of retention. Journal of Counseling and Development72(3), 281-288.

Howlett, C., Ferreira, J.-A., & Blomfield, J. (2016). Teaching sustainable development in higher education: Building critical, reflective thinkers through an interdisciplinary approach. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 17(3), 305-321.

Lewis, R.A., Kenerson, M.J., Sorrentino, C., and Rowse, T.H. (2019). Experiencing sustainability education: Insights from a living and learning programme. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 13(1), 14-24.

McClam, S., Cass, A., Connors, C., Frawley, D., McPartin, A., Orifici, C., & Papernik, L. (2015). Collaboratively creating and sustaining hope and agency. Journal of Sustainability Education, 10. Retrieved from 

McClam, S., Cass, A., Connors, C., Frawley, D., McPartin, A., Orifici, C., & Papernik, L. (2015). Collaboratively creating and sustaining hope and agency. Journal of Sustainability Education, 10. Retrieved from collaboratively-creating-and-sustaining-hope-and-agency_2015_12/

Stassen, M.L.A. (2003). Student outcomes: The impact of varying living-learning community models. Research in Higher Education, 44(5), 581-613.

Tinto, V., Love, A. G., & Russo, P. (1994). Building Learning Communities for New College Students: A Summary of Research Findings of the Collaborative Learning Project, University Park, PA: National Center for Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.





Categories: Research

O Grows, Community-Based Food Systems, and the Sustainability Compass

Journal of Sustainability Education - Tue, 2020-02-11 13:12

Forbes Andrzejewski JSE General Fall 2019 Issue PDF

Link to the General Issue Fall 2019 TOC


Abstract: This program feature documents our reflections on how the work of O Grows, is, or more accurately has become, increasingly sustainability-oriented. O Grows is a non-profit, community-university partnership with the mission to leverage the local capacity in service of community food needs. Specifically, we focus here on how engagement with an increasing number of sectors of the local food system, as we work toward this mission, has demonstrated a commensurate increase in alignment with the cardinal directions of the sustainability compass—attention to Nature, Society, Economy, and Wellbeing. We have realized, as O Grows has evolved, that keeping the program going and attending to sustainability are one and the same. As such, we argue the sustainability compass is a useful heuristic not only for reflection after-the-fact but also for partnership planning.

Keywords: Food security, local food system, community-university partnership, reflective practice, sustainability compass


In the spring of 2017, the Office of Sustainability at Auburn University recognized O Grows, a community-university partnership, for making significant contributions toward sustainability with the Spirit of Sustainability Award. As university members of this partnership that seeks the creation of a sustainable community-based food system, we pride ourselves and our collaborators on being sustainability-focused. Receipt of the award prompted us to reflect on what our organization’s focus on sustainability has meant in practice.  Our university, as with many organizations worldwide, uses the Sustainability Compass (Atkinson, Dubourg, Hamilton, Munasinghe, Pearce, & Young, 1997) to provide a shared definition of sustainability. Like a regular compass, the Sustainability Compass (see Figure 1) orients users using the points N, S, E, and W. But instead of North, South, East, and West, the Sustainability Compass uses Nature, Society, Economy, and Wellbeing to map the domains of sustainability. To frame our reflective work, we have done the same.  

Figure 1. Sustainability compass

This article documents our reflections on how the work of our partnership is, or more accurately has become, increasingly sustainability-oriented. Specifically, we focus on how engagement with an increasing number of sectors of the local food system has demonstrated a commensurate increase in alignment with the cardinal directions of the sustainability compass for O Grows.   

For clarity, for the duration of this manuscript we will adopt the convention of using ‘we’ when we are referring to ourselves, the authors, and we will use ‘the partnership’ to describe broader participation in O Grows efforts. 

What is O Grows?

O Grows is a community-university partnership among a local school district, civic organizations, the Food Bank of East Alabama, and Auburn University [AU]. Located in Opelika, Alabama, the county seat of Lee County, O Grows has a mission to address food insecurity through the development of a community-based food system.  In support of this aim and in collaboration with 100+ residents that represent the social and economic diversity of the areas, O Grows directs a school garden program; the Opelika Community Garden; and Opelika’s seasonal, state-certified farmers market from our headquarters at the Southside Center for the Arts. Through these efforts and related programming, O Grows has donated over 15,000 pounds of produce in the fight against local hunger, facilitated the commerce of small-scale local farmers to thousands of customers, and promoted career readiness skills to hundreds of the area’s most marginalized students. Our vision is the creation of a sustainable community-based food system, where food production, processing, distribution and consumption are integrated to meet the food needs of all residents in ways that are economically, socially, and environmentally viable for future generations. 

What are the Sectors of a Community-Based Food System?

The trajectory or O Grows’ efforts to date—school gardens to the community garden to the farmers market—is emblematic of a growing recognition that meeting the food needs of community members depends on identifying shared value among all sectors of the food system. Food systems vary in their size and scope but all food systems involve the people and processes that move food from “farm to fork,” including production, processing, distribution, retail, consumption, and waste management (UNEP, 2016).  

Production—growing or raising of food products

Processing—cleaning, packaging, value-added products (e.g., breads, jellies)

Distribution—transportation of food products to markets

Retail—food businesses (e.g., grocery stores, restaurants)

Consumption—meal preparation and eating

Waste Management—recycling and disposal of resources

In the last several decades food systems have moved toward industrialization, leaving community members increasingly disconnected from their food. In the 1800’s 90% of Americans lived on farms. By 1900 40% did so. Today, it’s less than 1% (Dimitri, Efflin, & Conklin, 2005; Fuglie, Clancy, Heisey & Macdonald, 2017). Most Americans cannot identify the places of origin for the food they consume (Hart, Bishop, & Truby, 2002; Cairns & Johnston, 2018). This is borne out in our data from younger students that show it’s relatively common for them to answer the question “Where does food come from?” with “Grocery store” or “Restaurant!”  This is not to suggest that the globalization of food systems is without merit, rather that industrial agriculture and small farming each have a role to play. 

Lee County and the city of Opelika reflect the state and national trend of communities that are unable to meet local food needs through self-reliance alone. With only 5% of county land available for agricultural use, commercial agricultural production accounts for a small percentage of the local economy. Of this area only 13% is harvested (Meissner, 2012). With an average annual income of $5,500, most farmers in Lee County see generally small production output. Unable to meet the volume and timing of local retail outlets and restaurants, most sell their products at local farmers markets and roadside stands (Meissner, 2012). Meanwhile, consumers are forced to rely on non-local sources for their food needs. Such situations exacerbate the condition of residents living with food insecurity in any community. 

Community food systems offer a counter to some of the sustainability pressures brought by national and global food systems.  Different communities have different food needs (and interests) but in all community food systems the six food sectors work to achieve shared benefit through a shared value in meeting the specific food needs of a community—consumers get access to the freshest possible foods and know where it comes from, and small and medium scale farmers have more direct access to and knowledge of local markets. And, as proximity allows for familiarity and greater cooperation the success of one food sector depends on the success of others.  That is, meeting the food needs of a community is not limited to making sure people aren’t hungry. Instead community food systems improve the social and economic health of identified areas by making foods available, accessible, and useable to all residents and by workers earning sustainable wages. 

What is the Sustainability Compass?

With alignment to the four cardinal directions, the Sustainability Compass draws our attention to the ways in which achieving sustainability requires consideration of concerns related to Nature, Society, Economy, and Wellbeing (see Figure 1). Using the compass as a reflective tool quickly revealed the ways in which these four directions are interrelated and interdependent. 

Mapping the Work of O Grows to Food Sectors and the Sustainability Compass

As already mentioned, receipt of a sustainability-focused award at our university prompted us to ask the question: How is our work about sustainability? When we thought through our history as an organization, we recognized that our explicit focus on the inclusion of more food sectors in our partnership led us to work that was more attentive to the four cardinal directions of the sustainability compass (see Figure 2). We have articulated that growth in the following sections organized around the phases in the evolution of O Grows and the sustainability compass points:

Nature—protection and restoration of the physical environment. 

Society— connectedness among groups of varying norms and conditions. 

Economy—viable and inclusive financial prosperity. 

Wellbeing—personal health and overall quality of life. 

The Evolution of O Grows as a Community-Based Food System

Phase 1: Consumption and Self-Sufficient Production

What came to be known as O Grows began in 2012 as a service-learning partnership between second-grade teachers and students at Southview Primary School, in Opelika City Schools [OCS] and Sean’s undergraduate educational psychology course in the College of Education at AU. Assisted by other parents at the school, Sean and his undergraduate teacher education students installed a garden and implemented a year-long garden curriculum to promote outdoor education. The students’ harvest provided more vegetables than needed for the end of the year salsa party they had planned. Undirected, the second graders decided it should be donated to the food bank and their AU mentors arranged for Elsie Lott (Board Member and Manager of the Community Market) to come to the next class period and accept the donation on behalf of the Food Bank of East Alabama. The donation was a little more than 20 pounds. Yet, for project leaders the experience suggested that school gardens had more potential than first imagined.  

By the end of the school year, several other schools in the district expressed interest in joining the group. As exciting as the spread of interest among schools was, expanding the collaboration would require additional resources. Sean met with his department head and she encouraged the expansion, agreeing to fund two graduate students to assist with the project. A call was then put out to solicit interest among AU faculty and, thankfully, faculty from the College of Education and the College of Agriculture responded.  

Accordingly, additional faculty (and their students) from the AU Colleges of Education and Agriculture got involved, Carey, among them; their expertise was needed to sustain the growing efforts in the schools. The work of faculty was practical (e.g., horticulture), conceptual (e.g., curriculum mapping), and methodological (e.g., participant recruitment and data collection), while AU students actively participated in the creation and renovation of school gardens and assisted OCS faculty with site-specific programming.’  

Soon after, the AU group met with school district representatives to discuss the partnership’s future. The conversation began by reaching consensus that the goal of the partnership was to promote school gardens as outdoor classrooms. However, it was also agreed that each school had unique interests so the partnership would not merely replicate what was done at Southview. A couple of the schools simply wanted to have a garden installed. Others expressed interest in working with AU faculty and students to develop programming. Stakeholders agreed that university faculty would work alongside each school partner to get the school gardens installed and programmed if necessary. After that, schools would assume increasing responsibility for garden maintenance and relevant instruction. 

In the fall of 2013, efforts continued at Southview Primary School and began with faculty and students at Northside Intermediate and Opelika Middle School. With a year of experience behind them, the second-grade teachers at Southview were comfortable taking lead on garden instruction, but AU faculty were present at weekly class meetings to assist. At Northside Intermediate, the gifted teacher had an existing but under-utilized vegetable garden and was interested in developing semester-long garden instruction. At Opelika Middle, a special education teacher wanted to update an overgrown courtyard in the school, establish an accessible vegetable garden, and implement programming for her students with physical disabilities. AU faculty and students worked with the teachers and students at each school to install or update the gardens during the first part of the semester and lead weekly lessons. 

By January of the next year and with the other school garden programs afloat, attention turned to two other district schools, Morris Avenue Intermediate, where the partnership installed a fruit and fitness trail, and West Forest Intermediate, where the partnership installed a butterfly garden. The interested teachers at each school did not need assistance with programming, so efforts were focused on the installation of gardens during the first couple of weeks of the semester.  

The third school, the Opelika Learning Center (OLC) was the last school to join the partnership.  OLC serves as the local alternative school, enrolling children in grades 3-12 who have been identified with behavioral issues that place them academically and/or socially at-risk for dropping out. The consumer science teacher and her students at OLC were interested in installing a school garden as part of their class (grades 9-12). Several of the students were familiar with the fundamentals of vegetable production and eager to work in the garden while others were more familiar with or interested in how to use food (i.e., cooking, nutrition). The teacher had no experience with gardening, so the partnership worked with her and her students to design activities to integrate the garden into their class activities. Instruction focused on areas of student interest. Each student grew their own row of crops, and local chefs were recruited to come to the school each week to work with the students to prepare and preserve low cost, high nutrition meals (Forbes & Andrzejewski, in press; see Table 1 for a summary of school-based O Grows initiatives). 

Table 1

School                     Grades               School Leaders   Type of Garden    AU Action

Southview 2 2nd Grade Teachers Vegetable Maintenance support Northside 3-5 (Gifted) Gifted Teacher Vegetable Installation;

Instructional support Morris Avenue 3-5 (P.E.) P.E. Teacher Fruit and Fitness Trail Installation;

Maintenance West Forest   

3-5 (after-school program) Afterschool Program Director Butterfly Garden Installation;

Maintenance Opelika Middle 6-8 (Self-contained S.E.) S.E. Teachers Produce and Ornamental Installation- improvement;

Instructional support Opelika Learning Center 9-12 Consumer Education Produce Installation; 

Instructional support

Wellbeing and Nature

With a goal to promote awareness of local food and food self-sufficiency, O Grows started in 2012 at Southview Primary School, a PK-2 school in Opelika, Alabama. As previously mentioned, efforts there began with the installation of a small garden in a previously unused outdoor space. Students worked with local volunteers as they prepared the beds, grew produce, and donated a portion of their harvests to the local food bank. Over the next two years, outdoor learning spaces were installed at five other schools in the system. These efforts were primarily focused on the consumption sector of a community-based food system with a secondary, albeit requisite, focus on production. That is, our aims were for students to participate in outdoor learning spaces, engage in food production on a small scale (see Figure 3), develop an appreciation for the sources of nutritious food (i.e., direct their attention away from retail and toward production), actually consume fresh produce, and make fresh produce available to their most vulnerable neighbors via donations to the food bank. With the benefit of hindsight and a growing awareness of sustainability as an ideal, we realized these efforts afforded us opportunities to attend to Wellbeing (i.e., “Our individual health, happiness, and quality of life” Atkisson & Hatcher, 2001) through production and consumption of nutritious food and Nature (i.e., “All of our natural and ecological systems and environmental concerns, from ecosystem health and nature conservation, to resource use and waste” Atkisson & Hatcher, 2001) through the use of outdoor learning spaces.

Figure 3. Students at a school garden site show what they are growing

Phase 2: Consumption, Production, Waste Management, and Distribution

When work began with OLC, the partnership expected things to go much as they had with the other schools. After the garden and related programming were established, the plan was to move on to other schools in the area that were interested in the same. Instead, the OLC experience alerted us to a community challenge that initiated a sea change in the partnership between OCS and AU. 

Aware of the link between students referred to alternative schools—a last option for K-12 students whose academic and social needs were not met in traditional environments—and living near or below poverty level (Porowski, O’Conner, & Luo, 2014), it was expected that students identified as low income would be disproportionally represented at OLC.  It was surprising, however, that the figure was, and continues to be, 90%; at no other school where the partnership worked with students was the percentage above 50%. Less surprising was learning that many of the OLC students were experiencing or had experienced food insecurity, a condition marked by insufficient access to the nutrition needed to live active and healthy lives (Coleman-Jensen, Gregory, & Singh, 2014)

Some of the information came from our school partners but most of it came from the students themselves. Through class discussion, casual conversation, and journal entries students revealed instances of their families having financial pressures (e.g., loss of income, medical bills) that forced a tradeoff between other basic needs (e.g., housing, utilities, medical care) and adequate nutrition. As the students contextualized the impact of food insecurity, it was impossible to ignore that the gross majority of students lived in one of two Opelika neighborhoods, Carver or Jeter. These historically African-American neighborhoods have long been two of the five communities most vulnerable to food insecurity in our area (U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, 2010). The majority of residents are low-income; poverty and unemployment rates are higher than city, state, and U.S. averages. Food self-reliance is near zero and consumers are divorced from other food sectors, with the exception of retail. These are exacerbated by the need for residents to access food support outside of the Carver and Jeter communities. With only one grocery store within the Carver and Jeter areas, convenience stores are the near exclusive retailers that accept federal program benefits. One food pantry with a soup kitchen operates in the Jeter area and serves 60 residents one day per month. Most low-income residents receive food assistance by accessing food retailers, food pantries, and soup kitchens that are located more than five miles from their homes, of which the most stable is the Community Market of the Food Bank of East Alabama (Lee County Community Food Security Assessment, Meissner, 2012). 

What was learned about the food needs of Carver and Jeter residents was stunning. And, frankly, we were embarrassed that though we were well aware of the links among food insecurity, low socioeconomic status, and being placed at risk for school failure, we had not adequately considered these relationships in context with regard to the students with whom we worked at OLC. At the same time, it was powerful to see students who are typically marginalized recognize their ability to affect a community challenge.  The garden at OLC is the largest of the school produce gardens and coupled with the physical and emotional maturity of teen-agers over pre-adolescents, food production is substantially greater at OLC than total production for all other school produce gardens (e.g., 615 pounds vs. 110 pounds in spring 2014). More still, for the students at OLC who live with food insecurity, their actions were an expression of agency against a potential barrier to their future success. 

Our learning about the food needs of many of the students at OLC coincided with the release the of the Carver and Jeter Community Planning Initiative. The initiative was commissioned by the City of Opelika in 2012 to conduct a comprehensive visioning and planning process for land use, public services, and economic development for the Carver and Jeter neighborhoods.  In March 2014, the group had published the findings of their efforts in “The Carver-Jeter Plan.” The report identified food security among the areas most significant concerns [in line with U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (2012) data] and called for the development of a community food project in response. 

The OLC experience was transformative for the partnership. Greater still, our experiences there in conjunction with the findings of “The Carver-Jeter Plan” alerted us to the extent of local food insecurity and contextualized the impact it has on students. Our response to this new awareness was to seek out community partners. Mindful of the role that the Food Bank of East Alabama played in attempting to meet local food needs, Sean suggested that the Food Bank of East Alabama join our partnership. One of the school leaders identified Keep Opelika Beautiful [KOB] as another potential partner. KOB had an existing relationship with OCS, promoting environmental stewardship. With unanimous support from existing stakeholders, invitations were extended to the food bank and KOB. They accepted and joined AU and OCS under the new banner of O Grows.

Community Garden. Members of the Carver and Jeter Community Planning Initiative invited representatives from O Grows to meet with them and representatives from Envision Opelika, a non-profit community development corporation. At the meeting, the director of the Envision Opelika, who was also a former city mayor, described how Envision Opelika and its partners had been transforming a former school, located at an intersection of the Carver and Jeter communities, into the Southside Center.  The center boasts a 300-seat auditorium and includes four acres, two on the front and two on the rear of the building. At that time, the center was only home to a local arts council and a community theater company, but upon completion of the renovation, the remaining space was planned for lease by community based non-profit organizations. She mentioned how Envision Opelika had committed a portion of the building and green space at the Southside Center for use in moves toward a community-based food system. It was then that Envision Opelika asked if O Grows would take the lead on the creation and management of a community garden at the Southside Center. O Grows took on this challenge with optimism about the avenues it would create to continue involving OLC students. 

As most of the OLC students live in the neighborhoods around the Southside Center, the community garden provided opportunities for them to be engaged during weekends and school breaks. Better still, the OCS superintendent supported the idea of getting students into the community and committed to creating a separate class for the garden program—a food systems class—funding a teaching position and transportation to the community garden two days a week. With the school district on board, other organizational partners provided needed resource. KOB absorbed the cost of the necessary liability insurance coverage. Our AU department head began a yearly budget allocation for the community garden and graduate student support. And, the Food Bank of East Alabama agreed to take as much donated produce as could be grown, targeting distribution to those in the Carver and Jeter communities.  

After quick visits to a few community gardens in the region, a blast of publicity, and several impromptu meetings, new and old O Grows members converged on a 10,000 square foot piece of greenspace at the Southside Center. AU’s Department of Horticulture sent staff and heavy equipment to clear and prepare the ground. A fence contractor and resident of the Carver neighborhood donated the materials and labor for a picket fence to secure the area. And, in the brutal heat of early summer, the Opelika Community Garden opened its gates. 

In the first year, 26 residents secured plots in the community garden, six of whom identified as low-income, which was representative of the broader Opelika community. Plots were made available for lease, with fees waived for food bank clients. 

O Grows volunteers, including OLC students, maintained soil quality, irrigated the plots, and maintained the newly installed composting area. An eighth of the garden space was reserved for the students in the OLC food systems class. Gardeners were encouraged to add a portion of their harvests to the produce donated from the students’ plot. By year’s end, O Grows donated 1,100 pounds of produce to the Food Bank of East Alabama from the community garden, in addition to facilitating greater food self-sufficiency for our resident gardeners and OLC students.  

In successive years O Grows has made significant strides in attempting to meet local food needs through the community garden. While there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of resident gardeners, O Grows has more than doubled its average annual donation since the first year of the community garden with over 15,000 pounds to date. A major factor in production has been the addition of a 30’x90’ greenhouse. In the simplest of terms, the greenhouse provides more workable space. O Grows uses much of the space for hydroponic (i.e., drip bucket and deep-water culture) gardening. These methods allow for typically greater volume and quicker harvests compared to traditional gardening. The rest of the area contributes to increased production by extending the outdoor growing season. With greater environmental control, plants can be started in the greenhouse weeks before, or after, a seedling could survive outdoors. Improvements to the outdoor garden increased production, as well. An irrigation system installed in the second year of the community garden provided a consistent amount and coverage for plants, replacing the hand watering method used in the first year. Soil condition improved with the introduction of amendments such as a chicken and cow manure obtained from local farms. 

Of course, the ultimate cause of the increased production has been the interest, expertise, and generosity of individuals who have come to the community garden. With each new year there are new opportunities to do better than the year before. Moreover, the connections made with community members and organizations stimulated many of these opportunities. Since opening the community garden, O Grows has received over $40,000 in financial support from community grants, local business sponsors, and individual donations. Public awareness has grown as well, bringing groups including the Lee County Master Gardeners, AU’s Horticulture Club and Collegiate FFA, and Lee County Cooperative Extension agents to assist with the community garden. 

But, of all the groups who have contributed to the community garden and mission of O Grows, none has had a greater impact than the OLC students who have become paid members of the O Grows staff. In 2015 and 2016, we were awarded Competitive Outreach Scholarship Grants by AU’s Office of Outreach to employ 4 OLC students with O Grows during non-school hours at a rate of $10 per hour. The student employees received training in vegetable production that reflects Alabama’s College and Career Ready Standards. They joined AU graduate students as the only paid staff and assisted volunteers with all aspects of O Grows programming. From the end of the second grant period, AU’s Vice-President for Outreach allocated $10,000 a year for on-going support of the effort. Beyond the opportunity for a pay check, the majority of students hired build greater social connections to and within their community resulting in general social skills (e.g., increased school attendance and engagement, fewer disciplinary referrals, improved soft skills) and task-specific employment skills.    


With O Grows having established a presence in the community through the installation of five school gardens, the city offered space at an underutilized community center to install a community garden (see Figure 4). The community garden was designed with a dedicated space for composting, which prompted us to redouble our efforts to compost at the school-based spaces. Doing so afforded us an opportunity to meaningfully incorporate the waste management sector of the community-based food system. The community garden also provide space for community residents to be outdoors and observe and nurture living systems, in much the same ways the school spaces had provided for students. The community garden space also includes spaces for animals: goats, chickens, ducks, and bees. That is, it enhanced our commitment to Nature and Wellbeing. Moreover, the community garden space allowed for the introduction of retail, via O Grows’ sales to local food businesses. Inasmuch as O Grows is fundamentally a university-community partnership, it represents the ways in which institutions have come together and collaborated around community-based food systems and food security. We now see our growing involvement with schools, community residents, local businesses as attending to Society (i.e., ‘the institutions, organizations, cultures, norms, and social conditions that make up our collective life as human beings”; Atkisson & Hatcher, 2001). 

Figure 4. Residents tending to their plots at the O Grows Community Garden

Phase 3: Consumption, Production, Waste Management, Distribution, Processing, and Retail

In early 2016, city leaders sought new management for the seasonal, state certified farmers market that has been in operation since the 1980’s. The market was originally located at the courthouse square and managed by the director of downtown development. Though successful, parking became an ever-increasing challenge, and the involved parties reached the shared decision that a move needed to be made. 

By this time the community garden (and related work with OLC) had been in operation for two full years. With the help of the OLC students and student interns, O Grows made strides in meeting its mission via food donations and opportunities for residents to increase their food self-sufficiency. But with less than 1% of Carver-Jeter residents identified as low-income participating in the community garden, O Grows partners looked for ways to extend existing efforts. So, proposing that such a move would provide greater access to food resources among low-income residents and increased employment experience for OLC student interns, O Grows lobbied and received the opportunity to assume management of the Farmers Market and relocate it to the Southside Center. The attempt was supported by Envision Opelika’s pledge to provide liability insurance coverage for the effort. By season’s end in September 2016, the relocated farmers market drew an average weekly attendance of 260 customers while farmers reported revenues on par or above the previous year, all while reducing barriers to accessibility for residents of the Carver and Jeter Communities. 

As had occurred with O Grows at OLC, the experience of managing the farmers market pushed stakeholders to appreciate that the well-being of any consumer is intimately linked to the other parts of the food system (producers, distributors, processors, retailers, and waste management and recycling). And, after that first year, we realized that O Grows had the capacity to embrace a larger mission. O Grows still works to access the potential of human capital and capacity to address local food security but now these efforts are more and more clearly focused on building and sustaining a community-based food system. It is impossible to work with farmers, consumers, gardeners, food banks, and local food businesses without developing a deep appreciation of the capacity for change in both the individuals and the relationships that give shape to a sustainable community-based food system. 


Maintaining and growing the community garden and the community interest in the community garden space required that the partnership more explicitly attend to the (potential) economic impacts of O Grows’ work—Economy (i.e., “The human systems that convert nature’s resources into food, shelter, ideas, technologies, industries, services, money and jobs”, Atkisson & Hatcher, 2001). Specifically, a paid internship program for students at the local alternative school was started, and the city asked that the partnership move the local farmers market to the community center that also houses the community garden (see Figure 5). The farmers market provides an opportunity for local vendors, including O Grows, to sell their produce and crafts. 

Life for students living in poverty consistently predicts (a) food insecurity and (b) failure to complete K-12 education at significantly greater rates than those students not living in poverty. Despite the challenges of disentangling cause and effect across generations, food insecurity during a child’s K-12 years increases the likelihood that he or she leaves school without a diploma, threatening the student’s future wellbeing (Aud, Wilkinson-Flicker, Kristapovich, Rathbun, Wang, & Zhang, 2013). Consider that students who fail to finish high school earn nearly $700,000 less in their lifetime compared to those who complete high school. Moreover, these students add over $250,000/person more in costs to the national economy in their lifetime than students who complete high school due to lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and other assistance programs, and greater involvement in the criminal justice system (Aud et al, 2013).

Figure 5. Farmers and consumers come together at the O Grows farmers market 


As we traced the history and accomplishments of our partnership, we can see a move from a focus on self-sufficiency, as seen in the school garden efforts, to a focus community-based food system, which, we have learned, required a focus on sustainability. As that shift occurred, there was a commensurate shift from focusing on wellbeing with a touch of nature to the inclusion of economic and societal concerns. 

To be clear, understanding our work in relationship to the sustainability compass is post-hoc, based on retrospective and reflective analysis. That is, in part, because the partnership was not initially explicitly sustainability-focused. The partnership was motivated to keep the project going and growing but by connecting with an increasing numbers of food sectors O Grows has been able to sustain its efforts by attending to the cardinal directions of the sustainability compass. Since the award, the partnership has more intentionally aligned its efforts with the compass, realizing that keeping the program sustainable and attending to sustainability are one and the same. 

We have come to see the sustainability compass as heuristic for planning, rather than as just a heuristic for reflection. That is through an increase in the number of food sectors involved in O Grows’ community food security efforts we have come to recognize how improving the local food system requires attention to the inter-related points of the sustainability compass. To this end we and the others of O Grows have turned our attention to the fact that the efforts of the school garden, community garden, and farmers market exist largely independent of each other. Currently, O Grows is planning a food summit to better integrate these efforts and promote sustainable community food security. The proposed summit will engage local members of every food sector to develop an area-specific action plan to leverage and link existing efforts. Objectives and activities of the plan will be grounded in the framework of the sustainability compass and demonstrate shared value among sustainability efforts for nature, society, economy, and well-being in community food security gains.  

Through this post-hoc explanation of how the sustainability compass maps onto O Grows efforts our hope is that our stumbling into sustainability is instructive for others interested in engaging local food systems. Use of the sustainability compass supports identifying potential community partners and provides parameters by which success in achieving sustainable improvement among local food systems can be assessed. Greater still, the compass serves as a touchstone to demonstrate the inter-relatedness of each sector, offering a shared vocabulary and ethos among community partners from different sectors, in achieving community food security that is sustainable. 


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