IOWA CITY — Since the 2009 founding of a University of Iowa Gardeners club, its student members have had to trek nearly 4 miles west of the central campus to tend to the root of their cause — a third of an acre teeming with tomatoes, carrots, beets, okra and melon.
The plot nestled on the outskirts of an expansive commuter parking lot does not have running water. It does not have bathrooms or benches.
“It’s a difficult place to grow food,” said the club’s president, Julia Poska.
It’s also an ill-advised classroom, even though — in an era of dynamic and innovative shifts across higher education — that’s what the students and administrators say it should be.
But developing a new, closer-to-main-campus UI Garden and Outdoor Classroom just east of the Iowa River behind North Hall, as has been proposed, would cost a startling $181,000 — for things like landscaping, running water, sturdy fencing, wheelchair-accessible raised beds, seating and a bathroom. Annual recurring costs are projected at $34,000, including crops, maintenance and management.
After tallying commitments from UI Student Government and the College of Public Health, the group last year asked the UI administration for $176,000 in one-time dollars and $20,000 in recurring support for the central campus garden and outdoor classroom.
“The Master Planning Team and the Campus Development Team have approved the plot to be included in the university’s master plan as it matures,” according to UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett. Recent repeated state funding cuts, though, have forced the UI’s priorities elsewhere.
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“Since fiscal year 2016, the Iowa Legislature has cut the UI budget by $16 million,” Bassett said in an email. “The midyear cut in April forced the university to adopt a five-month moratorium on construction projects. University leaders are concerned that the generational disinvestment in public higher education will continue.”
And so the UI Gardeners are pursuing alternatives: community partners, business sponsors, crowdfunding.
But after a recent meeting with the UI Center for Advancement — the university’s independent fundraising arm — Poska said, “It is difficult not to get discouraged.”
“We got a lot of support from the Center for Advancement, but also learned of a bunch more steps we need to take before we can start contacting potential donors,” she said, adding the prospect of having a central campus garden before she graduates in 2020 appears unlikely.
It seemed more likely several semesters ago in April 2017 when — propelled by discussions with student leaders, administrators and facilities management — then-UI Student Government President Jacob Simpson sponsored the group’s “garden and outdoor classroom” request.
The current farther-away plot already hosts two UI classes: one on vegetables and herbs and another on edible forest design. The gardening club, which produces 700-plus pounds of food in a year, lets student gardeners take their pick of the harvest before donating the rest to organizations like the Johnson County Crisis Center and the UI Food Pantry.
The pitch to move the student-managed garden a stone’s throw from residence halls and dining facilities would do more than support the club and its mission to address environmental, social, cultural and economic issues affecting the local food system. It would, according to the funding request, create “inclusive, outdoor infrastructure for interdisciplinary experiential learning about the food system;” enhance green space along the riverfront trail; encourage people to eat local and reduce their carbon footprint; and provide a healthy alternative food source for students.
UI administrators initially voiced support for the proposal until the state funding blows, according to Simpson.
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“In terms of the priorities and what they were going to support … it didn’t hit the top of the list, for understandable reasons,” he said.
Fundraising and community partnerships, according to Simpson, are “100-percent” the best way to plow ahead with a project that could enhance the student experience and the community.
“We are trying to develop experiential learning — learning about local food systems and creating a facility UI doesn’t already have,” Simpson said. “As the state Legislature continues to cut the university and really make it difficult to advance the academic mission in innovative ways, we have to continue to be creative about where we’re looking for money.”
UI Gardeners President Poska said her group, which has about 25 committed members, is reaching out to Iowa-based companies about becoming sponsors — even proposing a donor classification schedule that could earn recognition from a plaque to a bench to naming rights of the entire garden.
Organizations on their list of prospects include MidAmerican Energy, Hills Bank, the University of Iowa Community Credit Union and Hy-Vee.
“It’s a high price tag, but it’s creating a really high-quality space for our organization and for the university and the community,” Poska said.
Adjunct professor Fred Meyer has experienced the need firsthand in his role teaching the two garden-centered classes currently offered on the west-side plot. Students have to commute to participate — requiring either a car or enough time to catch the Cambus.
“It would be so much more convenient to have it closer,” he said. “The garden would be far easier to use, and it would be used by more people.”
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