Grad students eat vegetables! (and other signs of change)

On Fridays at Life University in Marietta, about 30 students, faculty, and staff members head over to the Sport Health Science building for a special errand. That’s where they pick up their weekly box of produce.

Since last autumn, two chiropractic students have run a community-supported agriculture program on campus, in partnership with Neil Taylor of Split Cedar Farm in Ellenwood. For about $300 a quarter, participants get 10 weekly deliveries of farm-fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit.

What they get—this week a selection including cabbage, sunchokes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, mixed braising greens, and arugula—is a far cry from what most of us associate with college food.

“I really had no idea the variety of greens they grow down here,” says Peggy Kalis, a chiropractic student from Michigan. “I had never cooked a collard green in my life.”

It was Kalis’ quest for healthy food that led to the creation of the Life CSA, one of a very small handful of such programs operating on Atlanta-area college campuses.

“I had been thinking about it for quite a while, since I came down here,” Kalis says. She tried to join a CSA already operating in her area, but picking up the food was a challenge with her busy academic schedule. Then she ran into Taylor at an organic food meet-up group.

“He called me one day and said, I’d like to start a CSA at Life, do you think you could help,” she says.

Kalis recruited fellow student Noah Beaudry. “Peggy and I went out to his farm, talked to him about his methods,” says Beaudry, who grew up on his parents’ orchard in British Columbia, Canada. “We also picked him because he does it year round.”

The students still had to overcome one big challenge: the pickup. Most CSAs designate a few hours once a week when people must pick up their share. Either the farmer or a member of the CSA oversees the process to make sure everyone gets what they paid for. But that’s hard to do on a college campus, where schedules vary wildly.

Beaudry came up with a creative solution. He built a locker system that works like the letter boxes at a post office. Taylor uses a key to open the entire structure. He puts a share in each cubby and then locks up. Members can only access their designated box.

The system works flawlessly. Taylor drops and goes; he doesn’t have to wait around for pickup. Members come by whenever they can. Meantime, the produce is protected from weather extremes, as the locker is located indoors.

Sustainable food initiatives have been popping up on other campuses, too. The Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University just launched a CSA with Alabama-based Moore Farms & Friends, says Julie Shaffer, who leads all sorts of events, classes, and an on-campus farmers market in her role as Emory’s sustainable food service education coordinator. Kennesaw State University and Georgia Tech also have sustainable food programs in place, she says.

“We’re trying to educate future consumers to make conscious and conscientious choices about their food,” Shaffer says. “It’s about taking better care of the environment, taking better care of our food service workers, and taking better care of our bodies.” Even students who live in dorm rooms and eat in cafeterias can enact change, she says: “We all vote about three times a day, with our forks.”

At Life, the instant success of the fledgling CSA has proved to Kalis that there’s room to grow. She envisions weekly cooking demonstrations on the items in CSA box; she hopes to persuade members of the university’s nutrition program to conduct the sessions in the department’s classroom kitchen. And of course, she wants more members of the university community and its neighbors to join the CSA.

They’d best sign up before locker-builder Beaudry graduates. “If we get more people, I’ll just build another,” he says.

Pictured: Life University students Peggy Kalis and Noah Beaudry at their produce pickup lockers; farmer Neil Taylor with a giant mushroom.