The VCU Sustainability Urban Gardens Program provides opportunities to learn about gardening, growing fresh produce and furthering food education. Much of the program revolves around community gardening, consisting of a piece of land gardened collectively by a group of people utilizing either individual or shared plots. VCU's community garden is publicly functioning in terms of ownership, access and organization and provides the following benefits:
- Helps alleviate food insecurity at VCU and in Richmond via regular produce donations to our community partners, including the VCU Ram Pantry.
- Provides hands-on, educational opportunities related to gardening, food access and food systems.
- Offers and cares for growing spaces for students, staff and faculty on campus, and creates universally-accessible spaces that enrich the lives of those in our community.
The community garden on the MCV Campus provides the VCU community with space to grow their own food and floors. Garden members pay a modest fee to rent one of 35 raised bed plots and the fees are reinvested into upkeep and maintenance of the garden. Learn more.
The learning garden on the Monroe Park Campus works with the VCU and Richmond communities to increase access to healthy food as well as provide education around how healthy food can be grown and prepared. Learn more.
Integrated sustainable urban design
Throughout the VCU campuses, you can find integrated sustainable urban design that consists of landscaping that manages stormwater runoff, green roofs, pollinator gardens and native plants. VCU also offers educational programs that teach students, faculty and staff about the benefits of gardening.
VCU Sustainability has partnered with VCU Environmental Studies faculty to establish a microgreens lab which focuses on sustainable indoor food production. The lab is open to all students, with no prerequisites required, and offers a one-credit course that is entirely student-run and oversee by the LGC and faculty lead.
The Urban Gardens Program partners with both VCU groups and local community groups to allow the gardening program to flourish, increase equitable food access in the community, and provide student, employees and community members with the opportunity to learn about the benefits of and gardening best practices.
One of the program's largest partnership is with RamPantry. Through this partnership, VCU is able to address food insecurity by providing in-need VCU students and employees with healthy, culturally-appropriate food. Currently, half of the produce grown at the MPC Learning Garden is donated to the RamPantry, with the Center for High Blood Pressure receiving the other half. VCU Sustainability also works closely with both organizations to provide nutrition and food preparation education.
Other partners include:
- VCU Sustainability gardening half pager [PDF] provides an overview of our gardening program.
- The Richmond VA Cooperative Extension Office Page offers trainings and helpful information such as pest control tips and food safety practices.
- Master Gardener Program (A Program of Richmond's Cooperative Extension) publishes resources and details about becoming a master gardener.
- Virginia Master Naturalists shares information about planting native plants that provide ecosystem services into your growing space.
- Richmond Grows Gardens Program, a City of Richmond initiative, provides enterprising residents with the opportunity to re-purpose vacant, unused city lots as functioning gardens for both food and fun.
The primary purpose of the gardens at VCU is to fill a gap in food access and nutrition for students and residents in the greater VCU community. There is only one grocery store within a mile of Monroe Park Campus, and no grocery stores within a mile of MCV Campus. Accessing fresh food without a car should not be an issue in Richmond, and yet four grocery stores (Fresh Market, Ellwood-Thompson's, Kroger and now Publix) are within a block of each other in the Museum District, while there is not a single grocery store within the limits of Jackson Ward, Monroe Ward, the lower Fan and Richmond City center. The two gardens, microgreens lab and distributed green spaces offer fresh food and open space for students and community members alike in these four neighborhoods through our donations to our distribution partners.
Urban communities broadly face food insecurity and Richmond city is no exception. Food security can be measured by a number of factors, like proximity to a grocery store, transportation, education/information and financial strain. With about 25 percent of Richmond's population experiencing poverty, and many neighborhoods located in food deserts, access to healthy food has become a significant issue in our community. Upon conducting a survey in 2013, VCU Sustainability found that many students at VCU struggle with this, as well. You can use the USDA's website for more information on food security, and can view current data on food security in the central Virginia region, as well as the Virginia Department of Social Service's road-map (as of October 2020) to end hunger. For now, we have condensed Osorio's “Remediating Food Deserts, Food Swamps, and Food Brownfields" (2013) to describe the main conditions of food security.
(Osorio, A. E., Corradini, M.G. & Williams, J.D. , “Remediating Food Deserts, Food Swamps, and Food Brownfields: Helping the Poor Access Nutritious, Safe, and Affordable Food.” Academy of Marketing Science Review, (2013) DOI: 10.1007/s13162-013-0049-6)
Food Security is more than just being able to go to a grocery store. There are three main components of food security that all have to exist together for anyone to be considered 'food-secure'; accessibility, nutrition and safety. Fortunately, most food that our community members can access is safe but because of the high degree of processing and preservation required to make it this way means the food is not nutritious. The neighborhoods that VCU shares exist both in a food desert (where nutritious and safe food is inaccessible), and in a food swamp (where accessible and safe food is non-nutritious). Besides these conditions, there are cultural and economic barriers to food security that our work also addresses. Once a food item reaches a person's hands, additional questions arise that need to be considered in what is known as the "Acorn Squash Problem" (Jones, J., Christaldi, J., & Cuy Castellanos, D. (2021). The acorn squash problem: A digestible conceptualisation of barriers to emergency food assistance. Public Health Nutrition, 1-5. doi:10.1017/S1368980021003748).
By inviting VCU students and staff to the gardens as well as community members, we try to remove the cultural barriers to food access first. We show the process of growing food organically hands-on so that anyone can learn how and where their food comes from. We clean, pack and label the produce from our gardens for our partner's to help recipients incorporate the food we grow into their meals, and we deliver recipes to our partners and at volunteering sessions for the food that is being grown.
By being urban agriculture advocates, we seek to improve the material conditions that create the above economic barriers to food access. Additionally, when scheduling and planning what we plant, we seek to provide a balance of easy to prepare foods like eggplants, cucumbers, microgreens and kale, and directly edible foods like peppers, carrots, beets and sunflowers. We are constantly testing new growing methods and plant combinations, as well as different food items in the gardens and lab to share our findings for what conditions create the best quality and largest amounts of food that we can bring to the community. By offering the food at low to no cost and making preparation information available to everyone involved in our work, we do everything we can to address the triangle of accessibility, safety and nutrition as well as the cultural and economic barriers that exist between all of our community residents and food security.
Green trees, parks, planted medians and open recreation spaces in urban design have been luxuries afforded to affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods within cities across America. Often, density and segregation of Black neighborhoods was prioritized or even openly legalized via redlining and the result is denser housing, more paved surfaces and limited tree and grass cover that regularly sees higher temperatures and worse air quality as part of a phenomenon called "urban heat islands."
The legacy of racism and disenfranchisement that led to the lack of green spaces in these neighborhoods directly contributes to worse quality of life, children’s health and life expectancy metrics that often nearly perfectly overlays with geographic information system data for “urban-canopy” information. VCU Sustainability addresses these inequities by first mapping existing data in historically Black neighborhoods in the VCU community, and then working with the VCU student community and neighborhood leaders as well as city officials to plant native tree species with large canopies to provide shade and community gathering spaces in these communities. Our current test cases include Carver, Scott's Addition and Amelia Street and there are more sites coming soon!
Eric Kolenich, June 26, 2020, Space around the Lee statue has been informally named for a Black man who lost his life at the hands of police, Richmond Times Dispatch
Parks and common green spaces are places where community forms. During summer 2020, Richmond witnessed our community's desire for these spaces as community members reclaimed the center median at Monument Avenue and Allen, creating a park in memory of Marcus-David Peters, now know as Marcus-David Peters Circle (MDPC). Making green spaces accessible not only requires increased availability at closer proximity to more residential areas, it also requires that outdoor spaces be designed with accommodations for physical impairments like mobility vision, or hearing issues to be addressed. At MDPC, for example, community members built wheel chair ramps into and out of the site, and added paving between the rows of the community garden to allow mobility-compromised people to freely enjoy the space. Compromising between easily navigable walkways, drainage, natural landscapes and mobility aids all are part of creating equitable and accessible green spaces where we can come together to support each other.
Learn about conserving natural resources in cities by downloading The Nature Conservancy's Field Guide to Conservation in Cities in North America. [PDF]