Cafeteria food doesn't have a great reputation. I would go so far as to say it is viewed by many (primarily those who consume it) as the armpit of the culinary world. As much as my own cafeteria at school has attempted to make more healthy foods available to students, there is still pizza, French fries, and burgers served daily. Six students at Brandeis had enough, however, and after becoming a chartered club, receiving a $30,000 grant from the Brandeis Sustainability Fund, and garnering over 100 students and staff to help out (even though it was finals week) the Brandeis Rooftop Farm was born.
Motivated by their class "Greening the Ivory Tower" and books like The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen, founders Annie Fortnow, Jay Feinstein, Allison Marill, Jacob McKay, Jenna Doherty, and Elizabeth Chalfin were "inspired to think about where our food comes from," says Feinstein. "We learned about the importance of local, sustainable food."
"For us, it is an incredible achievement that the farm makes people stop and think about food, even if it's just for the short second it takes for a student to take a selfie in front of the farm," says Feinstein. Many schools focus on marketing food as "fresh" and "natural", rather than actually providing it, so that students feel they are consuming healthier products than they really are. "Just yesterday I was eating a tuna salad sandwich marketed as 'deli fresh' when I turned the packaging over and discovered that there were nearly thirty ingredients listed, many of them artificial preservatives and flavors," says Eben Holderness, the farm manager. The farm also serves as a reminder of "the simple origins of the fruits and vegetables and how much they are modified before ending up in a dish on the hot meal line at the dining hall."
It is obvious that students care about sustainability and natural food, as it was very easy to get students involved in the project. Despite the fact that the farm was built during finals week, over 100 volunteers helped fill and place 1500 milk crates on top of the science center. "At first, I did feel surprised by how many students wanted to get their hands dirty on a Friday morning," says Fortnow, "but then I realized that students at Brandeis want to help the world, and promoting local eating and urban agriculture on college campuses through this project can do just that."
For those interested in getting involved in growing their own food, Holderness suggests growing microgreens in a pot, or even on a moist paper towel. "All you need to really grown them is sunlight and water, meaning growing in a dorm room can easily be done," says Holderness. "It's a great reward for minimal effort." Fortnow suggests finding a local community garden where one can learn the basics of farming.
Now that the farm is established, its leaders are looking for new and exciting ways to utilize their produce and engage students. It is an applaudable feat that amongst the monotony of cafeteria dining, students have come together to celebrate fresh food and natural eating. Says Feinstein, "I hope that after the farm prompts students, faculty, and staff to think about what they are eating, and that they will start to seek local foods."