Students embrace UCSC's Program in Community and Agroecology

Students Marion Clark, Sean Dugan, Conor McGowan, and Kate Schaffner in the PICA garden. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.

Thanksgiving comes only once a year, but a close-knit group of UCSC students gathers to share a meal at least three times a week as part of a unique program that fosters hands-on learning about food, farming, and sustainability.

"Meals are a really important part of building a community," said undergraduate Sean Dugan, garden coordinator for the Program in Community and Agroecology (PICA). "The cooks introduce the food and talk about where it came from, what went into it, and then everyone applauds."

Based in the Lower Quarry, PICA (pronounced PEEK-uh) brings together students from diverse disciplines who share a desire to live and learn together in a small community focused on living sustainably. The brainchild of environmental studies professor Steve Gliessman, PICA began in 2002 with nine students.

"This is all an experiment in building a community based around food--growing, harvesting, and eating it," said Gliessman, holder of the Ruth and Alfred E. Heller Chair in Agroecology and an advocate of small communities-within-the-university that he believes enrich the learning experience.

Donors Claudia and Alec Webster support PICA's vision of social change

Alum Alec Webster appreciates the satisfaction of hands-on work. That's part of why he and his wife Claudia support PICA.

PICA is home to 36 undergraduates who live in four prefab housing units in The Village housing area. Group meals are prepared in the dining commons three nights a week and after Saturday workdays. The heart of the community is the lovingly tended Foundational Roots Garden where students grow their own vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

The program resonates with a generation that has come of age in an era of school gardens, farmers' markets, bestselling books by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, and food scares that have made "know where your food comes from" a mantra among consumers.

"Before they get here, students are aware of the issues," said Gliessman. "They've grown up with an emphasis on organic food, and they want to carry it on. These kids want to be part of the change."

Dugan discovered PICA when he enrolled in Gliessman's two-credit seminar at the end of his freshman year. Students meet once a week to learn about food systems, and in the garden to receive hands-on instruction in all aspects of organic gardening. Each class ends with a group meal.

"I didn't really know much about PICA, but it was a really beautiful place, and I said, 'Wow, I'm moving here,'" he recalled. Nearly two years later, Dugan slings compost; harvests cool-weather crops like collard greens, kale, and chard; and earnestly describes picking and drying the heirloom beans and sweet corn that will be the basis of many winter meals for the PICA community. True to agroecological principles, the garden mimics a natural ecosystem with softly defined planting beds, a mix of crops and flowering perennials that attract beneficial insects, and shady areas that protect plants from the blazing summer sun.

"There are a lot of ways to reconnect to nature and the earth. This is a really important one," he said. "There's the beauty and functionality, but something else feeds the spirit. There's just something about being part of the cycles of nature, and part of the cycles of your own life by producing your own food."

Dugan, a junior majoring in environmental studies, marvels at what the group can accomplish, joking that it "doesn't seem mathematically possible" that he has to help cook only once a month in exchange for the pleasure of enjoying a home-cooked dinner three nights a week. "So much more gets done with everybody contributing a little bit," he said.

Like the garden itself, conversations around the dinner table tend to unfold organically as students explore topics of interest to them: Can organic agriculture feed the world? Can meat be part of a sustainable diet? Are animal products acceptable? What is the role of animals in sustainable agriculture?

Even the topic of sustainability is open to debate. Gliessman defines sustainability as an approach to life based on treating the land in an ecologically sound way, but he hastens to add that it must also encompass a socially and economically just system that treats people, land, animals, and water in "a way that lasts forever."

"It's about healthy food, healthy land, and healthy people, and it's going to require some social changes," he said.

Others pretty much avoid the term, saying it has been been "thrown around a little too much."

"People try to be open to other people's personal choices, so it works," Dugan said of dietary preferences, which range from vegan to gluten-free to omnivore, but that same spirit of tolerance underlies the PICA community.

"PICA seems like a utopian ideal," said Marion Clark, a 29-year-old re-entry student from Los Angeles who joined PICA this fall after commuting to UCSC from Palo Alto for two quarters. "We really take care of each other. It feels like my family."

"I'm back in school because I'm looking to be inspired," she added. "At PICA, it's not just a class. It becomes your hobby and your pastime."

Clark is a raw-food enthusiast whose recent raw-dessert workshop attracted so many people that she had to offer a second class. "I love being able to walk into the garden and see where my food came from," she said.

Whether they're majoring in environmental studies, sociology, art, or engineering, PICA students share a desire to make the world a better place. Clark's mother founded the nonprofit Surf Bus Foundation, which takes youth from some of LA's most troubled neighborhoods on field trips to the beach. Marion dreams of creating a similar program to bring at-risk kids closer to the source of their food. "Making your own food, growing it, that's the ultimate in sustainability," she said. "I want to see more kids be a part of it."

Although PICA focuses on food production, workshops have addressed other aspects of sustainable living, including alternative energy, rainwater catchment, and waste management. Students installed solar panels and have embraced Gliessman's initiative to install a flagship solar-powered "green kitchen."

Gliessman is, for many PICA students, a role model and an inspiration. "He's the most inspiring professor I've met so far. He has an incredible amount of knowledge and experience, and he's had a lot of influence in his field, as well as at the university," said Dugan. "And he's also just like a real guy. He's really humble."

The next step for PICA? "We need to continue spreading the word about what's happening," said Dugan, "because this is one of the coolest things on campus now."