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The Joy of Eating

Fullerton Arboretum and U-ACRE Students Partner for Research, Outreach and a Good Meal

February 11, 2014

When it comes to food, it's the best of times and worst of times for California. The state's 81,500 farms provide nearly half the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed in the United States. Yet, somehow, five of America's 10 counties with the highest child-hunger rates are in California. No. 1 is Los Angeles, where more than 600,000 children live in food- insecure households.

Orange County, ninth on the list, is home to 155,210 children — over 21 percent of the population — who are food insecure. In the face of such numbers, Sara E. Johnson, professor of anthropology, didn't just want to study the problem, but help solve it. That is why she recruited a number of university and community stakeholders to launch the Urban Agriculture Community-based Research Experience (U-ACRE) Program.

Though the numbers are staggering, Johnson was also motivated by her own family. "One of the things that inspired me at the beginning was seeing my children eating crisp, organic apples," said Johnson. "I love that. But I know there are moms and dads who don't get to see it. Their kids mostly get canned food."

She shared her concerns with academic colleagues and staff members of the Fullerton Arboretum,  a 26-acre, on-campus botanical garden operated by CSUF. Since 2009, the preserve has been growing organic produce in large quantities for distribution to the surrounding community. The resulting discussions quickly turned to concrete plans for bringing together faculty members, students, and community partners to conduct research and outreach around the Orange County area.

The Fullerton Arboretum was able to provide land, farming expertise, and class space. From the faculty, Joel K. Abraham and Jochen A. Schenk of the Biological Science Department agreed to join Johnson as instructors and student mentors. Abraham was also a co-principal investigator on the recently funded 2013 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant, which expands the capacity of U-ACRE to mentor students in community-based research with additional partners.

The first NIFA grant was received in 2011 to develop U-ACRE with a $277,500, two-year award. That funding allowed 20 undergraduates and one graduate student to become U-ACRE's inaugural and second cohort of fellows. For the two years they are in the program, undergraduates receive annual $2,000 stipends, and the graduate student receives a $20,000 annual scholarship. Of course, when much is given, much is expected, and students accepted into the program were quickly put to work.

The U-ACRE program was launched in 2012 with a five-week summer intensive course, "Sustainable Urban Food Systems. During that time, U-ACRE faculty members and guest lecturers introduced food and agricultural issues from a number of disciplinary perspectives, always with a focus on research. Fellows also receive hands-on education at the Fullerton Arboretum's training garden from staff members, including Jonathan Davis, biologist and farmer. This is to prepare them to assist community partners with urban agriculture endeavors and to brainstorm related research questions.

"Over the cohort's first year, I've definitely seen them develop an appreciation for the amount of work that goes into gardening," Davis said. "You learn a lot out there. Maybe a bed of beets needs to be weeded by hand. That seems simple, but there are things you discover when you sit with those beets for two hours and weed them. You get comfortable. Plant identification becomes intuitive. You develop a deeper understanding of soil quality. And those are all things you need to know to help a farm grow."

Research mentoring begins over the summer, as well. Throughout those five weeks, fellows formulate research questions that get refined through class discussion and meetings with faculty mentors. But since this is most students' first research project, the learning curve is steep.

"It's difficult when it's real, to narrow your scope, to make a tractable hypothesis," said Johnson. "And you can't do that in a classroom. You can be aware of research in a classroom, but you can't learn how to conduct it."

Working with Schenk, a plant biologist, first-year cohort member Miriam Morua is testing which irrigation system works best for growing capsicum chilies in a small-scale urban garden. She uses her personal practice garden at the Arboretum to compare the effectiveness of Microjet irrigation vs. soaker-hose installations.

This project is derived from Morua's larger goal of expanding urban farming among Hispanic populations. Chilies produce large yields when properly cared for and are popular in Hispanic cuisine — so popular that many visitors to the Arboretum, which is open to the public, have taken a special interest in Morua's garden.

"A lot of people come by and want to know what I'm growing," she said. "I've been giving peppers away and people are like, 'Oh my God! Thank you! It's amazing!' They are so excited to be getting something directly from the farm and being able to cook it that same day."

Morua also donated pepper plants to Pathways of Hope, a U-ACRE nonprofit community partner dedicated to "providing food, transitional living and support and prevention services to the hungry, homeless and less advantaged." U-ACRE students and faculty members have helped develop and maintain an urban garden there as well. Not only does that garden provide fresh produce to residents, but it also gives them the skills necessary to create and maintain their own in the future.

This outreach is another fundamental aspect of U-ACRE. When Johnson and her colleagues were designing the program, taking immediate action was at the forefront of their minds.

Students don't limit their outreach work to Orange County, however. Morua grew up in Lennox, California, between Inglewood and Los Angeles International Airport. She is working to get a greenhouse built in a local park there, and eventually hopes to replace the ice-cream trucks outside local schools with fruit and vegetable stands.

"We've never had anything like a greenhouse in our community before. But we have a community partner and plenty of passionate people involved," she said.

Jonathan Monahan-Wiggs, first-year cohort member and anthropology major, is working with another U-ACRE community partner, Ladera Vista Junior High in Fullerton. In conjunction with Johnson and Ladera Vista teachers, Monahan-Wiggs is monitoring how garden-based activities for seventh- and eigth-graders at the school affect their dietary preferences.

"This is a great time for us to begin working with these children," Johnson said. "They are adolescents starting to get interested in the larger environment and just beginning to make their own choices about what to eat."

As part of that education, Ladera Vista students toured the Arboretum, where they learned about the U-ACRE fellows' research and the fruits and vegetables grown on site. The fellows designed the field trip under the guidance of Fullerton Arboretum Curator Chris Barnhill. U-ACRE student Cynthia Chavez, who leads garden-based tutorials at the junior high, also co-organized the tasting element for the field trip.

"Students were excited to see the Arboretum's farm and compare to their school garden," said Chavez. "At Ladera Vista we harvested amaranth with the students, and in one of their classes they made soup with amaranth and corn. During their field trip, we grilled up some zucchini and made dipping sauce for it. After trying the zucchini, they talked about making it at home for their families because it was so good!"

Monohan-Wiggs has been so encouraged by his preliminary research results that he submitted an intramural faculty-student collaboration grant with Johnson. With the funding he received, he is travelling to present his findings at the American Association of Anthropologists conference in November. "That's an amazing experience for an undergrad, to present the research he's done at a huge national conference in Chicago," Johnson said.

Chavez began U-ACRE as an undergraduate. After receiving her B.A. in anthropology from CSUF, she is now in the University's environmental studies master's program. She was recently awarded a natural resource internship with the Orange County Water District.

Environmental studies graduate student Jose Gonzalez is also working with Ladera Vista, running the waste diversion project. He and Johnson set up two vermicompost units designed for institutional use, funded by the Orange County Community Foundation. Food waste from student lunches is separated from other waste and goes into the units, where it aids in the production of worm castings, a valuable fertilizer for the school garden. The question now is whether a sustainable model can be created to turn the school's food waste into a new revenue stream. Gonzalez is presenting the results of his research at the CSU Sustainability Conference at Cal State Chico.

"We're trying to build capacity to see if we can develop a current and consistent supply that will entice a community partner like Whole Foods, which has expressed interest, to help us market these castings," said Johnson.

Gonzalez has also developed research in coordination with Pathways of Hope to increase understanding of the food acquisition patterns of food insecure individuals utilizing a local food distribution center. "Our community partners always have the most positive and effusive comments about working with Jose," remarked Johnson.

Gonzalez isn't the only fellow working on worm composting. Biology student Calvin Lung used a plot of land at the Arboretum to test how differing diets affect the population and health of worms, as well as the quality of the compost they produce. All worms received food scraps from Cal State Fullerton's Gastronome. However, the control group was left alone with their food, while all food scraps not eaten by worms were removed in the ideal group.

This interconnectedness among fellows — through their research and outreach — is already becoming a hallmark of the program.

"We definitely help each other and look for ways to connect our research projects," said Morua. "We bonded over those five weeks in the summer. It happened so fast, but by the end we were best friends."

Those friendships have also strengthened pre-existing programs, like Roots & Shoots, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) project developed through a partnership with South Coast Farms in San Juan Capistrano. Roots & Shoots brings fresh, organic produce from South Coast to Fullerton-area consumers through bi-weekly basket deliveries at the Arboretum. Since joining U-ACRE, Gonzalez became Roots & Shoots' chapter president and recruited several fellow CSUF students to assist with operations, thereby, ensuring the CSA will be operational in Fullerton for the foreseeable future.

And that — creating sustainable solutions — is the ultimate goal of U-ACRE. Perhaps even more impactful than the research and outreach projects is the effect U-ACRE is having on the fellows themselves. When Morua first applied to the program, she was planning on using her biology degree to go into the health professions. Now, she has leveraged her experiences in U-ACRE to earn scholarships that will propel her into a career in agriculture. Last year, she even traveled to Washington, DC, to tour the U.S. Department of Agriculture and speak with USDA officials about eventually working there.

"I didn't think about this at all until I got into U-ACRE," she said. "But it's been such a great experience that I definitely want to go into this as a profession. You have to work with plants to understand."

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