By Melissa Lindley
Although it is not unusually warm, the tinges of humidity linger in the air while a bird makes its way along the ground of a garden. Its feet make tiny imprints as it attempts to enter the wiry fence, trying to scrounge up a small meal.
A wide variety of plants are enclosed, some familiar to the average eye, others only recognizable to an expert. The mixture of organic fertilizer and impending rainfall fill the air, leaving the impression of being in a backyard.
It is not a backyard, however, but rather Rider University’s Green Acres organic garden, located near the main gate, between the Joseph P. Vona Academic Annex and Van Cleve House.
At 12:30 every Friday afternoon, Rider students, faculty and the local community are able to shop for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at no cost.
Dr. Laura Hyatt, garden manager and assistant dean of sciences at Rider University, explained that the garden began after she was inspired by one of the projects she did with her botany class.
“I instated this project called Food of the Week. We had chocolate, edamame and vegetables,” she said.
While working with her students, she realized that many of them did not know where their food comes from. In order to make them more mindful, she had her students grow their own plants for a better understanding, eventually leading her to start the community garden.
She went on to explain how both laziness and a busy lifestyle led to people relying on the convenience of fast food, rather than making a meal with fresh ingredients.
“[People miss] the whole idea of agriculture, being on a farm,” Hyatt said. “Our culture is designed to separate ourselves from our food.”
One of Hyatt’s main concerns is making fresh and unprocessed foods available to everyone, especially Rider students. The garden volunteers recently tried to work out a deal with Aramark, the campus’ dining service, to integrate organic foods into the daily menu. Due to regulation concerns, however, the company was unable to fulfill their request.
While Hyatt understands Aramark’s response, she feels that the lack of fresh produce puts students at a disservice for food quality that they may not have access to elsewhere.
“[I come] at food with that sort of analysis of ‘where does this come from?’ I’ve got an apple in my hand from Argentina and I’ve got another apple that came from Lawrenceville, New Jersey,” she said. “The apple from Argentina had to get shipped here. It had to be stored, sprayed with chemicals and the trees were probably artificially fertilized. Whereas this apple was grown up the street, picked by someone in the neighborhood, and then I bought it.”
Despite Hyatt’s concerns, few people apart from her students have followed this philosophy.
Mary Ellen Eckman, of Yardley, Pa., was one of the few people who came to get their fill of organic produce from the garden because of her curiosity and passion for using fresh food as often as possible.
“[I like] the fact that it’s organic,” Eckman said. “I went over to the science building and I just wanted to help.”
While Eckman has always preferred organic food to store-bought, there are also more emotional reasons for her preferences.
“My grandson has Asperger’s and is sensitive to the additives in fruits and vegetables,” she said, explaining that the only way to keep his health stable is to have food free of chemicals and preservatives.
As the afternoon began to wind down, Hyatt and the volunteers started to pack and clean the area. Baskets still full of vegetables were stored away, and containers of stems and leaves were taken away for composting.
“We don’t get many people here,” Hyatt said.
At that moment, two male students walked along the sidewalk in front of the garden, unaware of the nearby table and tent that was full of food.
“Free food here!” said Hyatt as they passed.
The students continued walking, however, not even pausing to look up or acknowledge the opportunity of free, organic food, an opportunity that is not often heard of nowadays.