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Supporting Sustainable Urban Agriculture From the Ground Up

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On Saturday mornings, biological science student Ivey Stone tends to the 12 blueberry bushes she planted at a local community garden this winter.

The plants are thriving at the Seeds of Hope garden at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Fullerton and that makes Stone optimistic. She is hopeful that her work will eventually supplement the diets of local residents who don’t have access to nutritious food like antioxidant-rich blueberries because they are expensive.

“It’s rewarding for me to know that after my research project is completed, the 12 blueberry plants I’ve been able to add to the garden will continue to bear fruit for many people for years to come,” she said.

Stone is among Cal State Fullerton students participating in hands-on and diverse research in sustainable urban agriculture, supported by Cal State Fullerton’s Urban Agriculture Community-based Research Experience (U-ACRE) program. Sara Johnson, professor of anthropology, started the private and federally funded program in 2011, which has been nationally recognized for its community engagement and preparing students to participate in a global society and the workforce.

“Dr. Johnson designed U-ACRE to be a sustainable model — and its success is due primarily to her hard work and that of the U-ACRE students and community partners who share her vision,” said Joel K. Abraham, assistant professor of biological science, who’s mentoring seven students, including Stone.

Johnson, Abraham and a number of other faculty members have since mentored 29 students who’ve presented their research to local and national organizations and also at regional and national academic conferences. Students have participated in internships with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency, won service, scholarship and teaching awards and entered graduate programs. Community partners have also grown to 11 and include St. Andrew’s, Fullerton Arboretum, local schools and nonprofits.

U-ACRE’s goal is to build an interdisciplinary framework, in which urban agriculture is the means to promote understanding of sustainability and the natural world, as well as increase awareness and preparation regarding STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields in the workforce, Johnson explained.

“A key tenet is that the research has benefits to the community partner and their members,” she added. “In this way, U-ACRE both helps solve real-world problems and produces knowledge to address these issues in the future.”

This academic year, 20 students are investigating such issues as food security, childhood nutrition, food safety, waste diversion, agroecology and techniques of urban agriculture.

Lorenzo Vinluan IV, and his classmates, called the Green Team, are working with students, teachers and parents at Rolling Hills Elementary School. The team creates lessons about biology, scientific thinking, food handling, water conservation and how to care for plants in the Fullerton school’s garden. In May, they will sponsor a garden stand at the school.

Besides the research training, what has also been rewarding for students is their experiences and collaborations with the community partners.

“The best part is working with the children. They have such a drive for learning and they’re very enthusiastic about science,” said Vinluan, a biological science major who plans to become a pediatrician. The senior also is investigating the social pressures that affect fruit and vegetable consumption in elementary-age children.

“From the lessons we offer, we want the students to be engaged and inspired, and to feel like they’ve learned something about science.”

Stone, comparing the differences in blueberry productivity, water use and pollination between blueberry bushes grown with the thyme and those grown with mulch, relishes working in the church’s garden with community members.

“Although I like the academic and problem-solving aspects of the research project, I enjoy the tasks where I get my hands a little dirty the most,” said Stone, graduating in May and pursuing becoming a naturopathic doctor. “It’s been great to become a part of the Seeds of Hope family. “There is something greatly rewarding in watching a few seeds turn into bushels of food.”