Students + Campus

Students in urban agriculture class harvest new skills, knowledge

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UCLA urban ag class at Sunset Canyon garden
Rebecca Kendall/UCLA

Students get hands-on while learning about urban agriculture in Los Angeles. The class is taught by visiting assistant professor and master gardener Anne McKnight and supported by UCLA's Healthy Campus Initiative.

Some might consider growing one’s own food quaint or old-fashioned, but Anne McKnight begs to differ. To McKnight, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures who teaches a class in urban agriculture at UCLA, growing your own food is more important than ever.

From the community garden at UCLA’s Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, McKnight teaches undergrads about the role that soil quality and nutrient-rich fertilizer play in the growth of strong, hearty plants. She encourages them to smell and touch the plants; contribute to the garden by planting different kinds of herbs, fruits and vegetables; and to design, build and maintain their own small raised-bed garden.

“It gives them the ability to connect to nature and to food systems at a number of different scales, and to also see how you make a drastic difference in understanding what you can achieve over a span of 10 weeks,” said McKnight, who taught courses on Japanese food and foodies in a cross-cultural context through literature and film.

After all, food in sun-rich L.A. can be grown and harvested within the span of an academic quarter. “When you look at the sunflowers you planted six weeks ago and they now dwarf you, it puts all the intellectual parts of your learning in a pretty real-world frame of reference — you can see growth visibly come to life, and it’s really satisfying," she said.

Offered last and this winter quarter with generous support from the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, the class also explores major issues and policy debates swirling around food, the history of urban gardening in L.A. and the renewed interest in farming and gardening in the city.

A keen interest in urban gardening is rooted in people’s increasing concern for their personal health as well as the health of their communities and the planet, said McKnight.

One of roughly 30 students taking this year’s class, third-year environmental science major Amanda Russell, a Long Beach native, has some experience with gardening — each fall, her family’s tradition was to grow pumpkins. But she admitted she hadn’t given the grow-your-own-food approach much thought before now.

“I wasn’t aware of the direct impact of growing your own food, especially how popular it is in an urban environment,” said Russell, who recently worked in a small group to find a suitable place to grow a strawberry plant that allowed for ample drainage and sunlight. “Now I’ve come to realize that it is totally doable. You can grow things in the city. There are a lot of options outside of just going to the grocery store. It’s good to know you can grow your own food, sustain yourself and be independent.”

Fourth-year biology major Neyamatullah Akbar hadn’t anticipated getting his hands dirty when he registered for the class. But the opportunity to do just that has made it one of his favorite. But, he said, it’s also important to learn about the socioeconomic issues that surround food distribution and consumption, and these lessons have made the course interesting to him.

“I expected I would learn more about theory and what’s going on it L.A.," said Akbar, whose mother keeps a garden at home in Anaheim. “The thing that interested me most was that there’s a huge increase in Type 2 diabetes and obesity in cities or urbanized areas with socioeconomic variances.”

Early on in the class, the students learned about the differences that exist within Los Angeles when it comes to access to fresh and organic foods after watching a video and taking a field trip to grocery stores in two different parts of town. They also heard from community health advocates working to integrate access to healthy food into new master plans for the city, seed conservationists who collect and distribute heirloom seeds "localized" for L.A.'s climate, and people who plant trees and redistribute fruit that would otherwise languish or go to waste.

This class is a labor of love for McKnight, a certified master gardener who has previously worked with a variety of off-campus groups, including food justice advocates, food policy experts and various faith communities. She has also taught homeowners in South Los Angeles how to redesign their home landscapes in order to use less water for irrigation. She has also been a strong advocate for more space for gardening in residential areas and changes to city codes that would allow parkway gardening.

As immersed as she is in this field, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when she didn’t have her hand in something garden-related.

“I grew up with zero interest in gardening,” said McKnight, who hails from Bloomington, Illinois. “I grew up in the most industrial part of agribusiness in the country. It’s the biggest soybean-producing region in the world.”

Her mother grew tomatoes in their backyard, but toiling the soil and harvesting in the steamy Midwest summers were not attractive to McKnight as a teenager. All of that changed when she transplanted herself to the West Coast. She attended grad school at UC Berkeley “during the boom years of foodie culture” and eventually landed in Glendale, where she has a couple of 1,000 square feet of garden space at home. There, she grows everything from artichokes, lemongrass and basil to flowers that attract bees, which are vital to pollination and the growing of food-bearing plants.

Her friends and neighbors, prime candidates for gifts of the abundant bounty, love it.

Besides being able to grow your own food, gardening offers several social benefits, including fostering a sense of community among neighbors, community members and even people you meet in the garden stores. “You develop your own little ecosystems of knowledge transfer and of borrowing and lending tools,” said McKnight.

She says that for her students, being in the garden and working with one another in a new way enhance learning and leadership and reduce lethargy.

“I can see the difference in energy levels in my students,” she said. While students will often take the same seat each time in a typical classroom and avoid interacting with their classmates, something unique happens in an outdoor class, McKnight said.

“You take people outside, and their social worlds open up. You see different leadership styles and a public presence emerge in students that you’d otherwise never see.”

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