Montclair State University campus community garden gains traction
MONTCLAIR — “Oh yeah,” says Chris Snyder, Founder and Garden Coordinator of the Montclair State University Campus Community Garden, when suggested that the area he and others oversee is truly a garden in an urban setting.
“MSU presently has 17,000 undergraduate students, 4,000 graduate students, and 3,500 staff members, totaling the approximate 25,000 persons on campus.”
Still, the garden thrives. “Oh yeah,” he says again, this time smiling.
The garden itself was physically begun in the spring of 2018 but was in planning since 2016.
“I became a medical anthropologist,” said Snyder, “and I worked a lot with nutrition and healthcare. I spent a lot of that time doing work in urban agriculture, specifically food systems, trying to come up with local sourcing of food. It’s a sustainability issue, but it’s also a health efficacy thing. A lot of urban areas have issues with malnutrition, of lack of food access.
“So, there’s a lot of high-end academic topics that funnel into ‘it’s a garden.’ At the end of the day, you’re gardening, but there’s a lot of reasons you’re gardening. It’s not just because you want to garden.”
There’s a further purpose here; there’s more to it.
A few years ago, Snyder approached the proper campus folks with a strategic plan, timeline, and budget to get the garden project off (or better yet, into) the ground. “It was not just an idea; now we had documentation.”
He then adds, “We’re a community garden model, so each bed belongs to a specific group on campus.” Snyder walks the garden, pointing out colorful marigolds (planted by the Center for Writing Excellence) that beautify, while at the same time singing the praises of other campus groups who contribute, maintaining beds displaying dark soil contrasted by fresh, green lettuce, mint, and ripening strawberries.
“What this garden does is, yes, showcase sustainability and is about nutrition education, but we invite people to come and hang out,” he said. “We ask folks to donate whatever portion (of their food grown) that they can, and it goes to our food pantry now.”
He then points to a specific plot and said, “We have an Environmental Science professor and his class coming out here in about an hour. We have a lot of mint and tomatoes and strawberries growing here.”
The Montclair State University food pantry was started in 2016, and it benefits students on campus who feel a pinch for food.
Snyder has done some studies which confirm the food insecurity on campus.
“Forty-three-point-six percent,” says Snyder, stating the percentage of students on campus who are low on food.
In fact, during a spring semester survey completed by students, Snyder’s finding was that 120 (19.1 percent) students suggested having low food security; 154 (24.5 percent) students suggested having very low food security.
During the course of the spring semester, 274 (43.6 percent) students were food insecure. “We’re approaching half. We have Dining Services here in the garden,” Snyder says, pointing to the group’s corner bed. “Professionally we work very closely together to actually mitigate some of the food security on the campus. They pledge to try and compost their food waste and they make themselves more sustainable.
“They’re out here growing food that they then donate to the pantry. Or they use what they grow in cooking demonstrations to teach students how to prepare food.”
Season one had 66 groups growing in the garden; season two has 44. “I’d love to have more space,” Snyder says. “I have a waiting list, and that’s a very good problem to have.
“This is only year two; we’ve made much more progress in much less time than I ever thought possible right now. We have a lot of momentum in the university, they’ve been very supportive of it — which is great for us. I’d love to have more space for more gardeners, but also more space to dedicate my time to grow productively.”
Snyder then looks at the garden, which produced over 300 pounds of food in 2019. “Just last year this was empty grass,” and he echoes again his prior sentiment, “I’d love to see more of this space on the campus.”