A pristine lab lies nestled on the fourth floor of McCarthy Hall where student fellows of the Urban Agriculture Community-based Research Experience (U-ACRE) program meet every Friday. The room is nearly empty, devoid of any conventional lab equipment, with only light, slate-gray tables arranged in a large rectangle.
“There are no bunsen burners here,” said Sara Johnson, Ph.D., U-ACRE director and professor of anthropology at Cal State Fullerton. “All the glassware and chemistry — I love chemistry, so I’m not making fun of it. I learned a lot from it and it got my first job, but that’s not what we do.”
The U-ACRE program at CSUF is a spring semester course where students partner with community organizations, develop urban agriculture projects, research and find solutions for food insecurity; a state where people struggle to obtain food due to financial reasons or lack of resources.
The U-ACRE fellows are currently applying for grants for the program, Johnson said.
“People who are successful at grants will tell you, you only see when somebody gets it, but you don’t see the nine they didn’t get,” she said.
Food insecurity in Orange County is what first inspired Johnson to start the U-ACRE program in 2011.
“There’s a tremendous amount of food insecurity in Orange County, and it largely, in 2011, was not talked about, which is why it got worse and worse and worse,” Johnson said.
One in nine people in Orange County struggle with hunger, according to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, a food bank in Orange that serves about 18 million meals annually.
Although the food bank primarily serves disenfranchised individuals such as the working poor, single-parent families, homeless and seniors on fixed incomes, food insecurity affects CSUF students, too.
California State University Chancellor Timothy White commissioned a study in 2015 to learn more about food insecurity within the CSU system. The study found in a survey of over 1,000 students, 24 percent lacked adequate access to food. It also found that food insecurity led to high levels of stress among students because of stigmatization. Students did not seek help because they did not want to seem needy, according to the study.
One of the ways U-ACRE fellows try to mitigate food insecurity in the community is by working with local schools to educate young students and get them to engage with sustainability projects like school gardens.
Students in the program visit Ladera Vista Junior High School, located about a mile from CSUF, twice a week, said Andrew Shensky, a graduate student in environmental studies at CSUF.
“We work with students, usually in groups of probably about 15 to 30,” Shensky said. “We help run the school garden there, and we do environmental education lessons and things like that.”
The school garden is a core component of Ladera Vista’s culinary arts elective course, providing ingredients for students to learn how to prepare and cook simple meals.
In addition to Ladera Vista’s garden, U-ACRE members also help maintain a waste diversion program where garden and food waste are put into a vermicomposting unit, which creates nutrient-rich compost to be put back into the garden, Johnson said.
Vermicompost is what worms leave behind after processing food waste, essentially worm poop.
“It’s better than most soil amendments,” Shensky said. The process is entirely organic, so no outside chemicals are introduced into the garden. Vermicompost also helps plants become more disease-resistant, Johnson said.
U-ACRE’s involvement with Ladera Vista helps spur student interest in science that might not otherwise be there, Shensky said.
“Some students that may not like their science class, I think they kind of go into that having a preconceived idea that they don’t like science, or just being in a classroom and in that setting, they don’t really like it,” he said. “But when they’re in the garden and you’re teaching things where it is science, but it’s more hands-on and they get to interact, they don’t view it as science, even though that’s what they’re learning.”
Shensky also noted that working with university students instead of teachers creates a more informal aspect to lessons, encouraging younger students to socialize and treating gardening like an outlet. It also helps boost students who are doing well in school and helps inspire those who are not.
“There are also students there who are not on that trajectory, and they can start to think about it much more when they see a university role model who’s saying, ‘This is fun, this is exciting,’” Johnson said.
Other U-ACRE community partners include Pathways of Hope, a transitional living center in Fullerton; the Orange County Food Access Coalition; the U.S. Forest Service; and the Fullerton Arboretum.
U-ACRE provides a hands-on experience for students interested in sustainability, Johnson said.
“I wanted to teach students about research. I didn’t like the books that were for sale,” Johnson said, laughing.
Textbooks and classrooms alone aren’t enough for students to learn from, she said.
“You have to do it. It’s a craft,” Johnson said. “If you just tested with multiple choice, you can’t say anything except students can take a multiple choice test. It doesn’t come up much in life afterwards.”
Only 10 students are accepted into the program per semester, making U-ACRE highly competitive.
Johnson said she evaluates applicants on aptitude, the desire to work with the community and the ability to stay committed to personal and program goals.
“Sometimes that commitment is cleaning out the garbage cans that the kids put their food waste in. And you know what? I’ve done that job, too — it’s not a fun job,” Johnson said. “But it’s a job that needs to get done to do the process. I don’t want to have students come into the program that say, ‘I’m a university student, I don’t do that,’ because you need to do it all.”
U-ACRE is interdisciplinary, with fellows majoring in everything from environmental studies, to psychology, to art.
“I think there’s various ways you can incorporate any field of study with this,” said Lidia Orozco, psychology major. “With me, personally, as part of my research, I was developing a questionnaire measuring knowledge and behavior as a result of sustainability education. So that component within itself is both psychology and environmental studies or sustainability.”
Looking forward, Johnson’s plans for the program include having vermicomposting units built in the Fullerton Arboretum. To do so, U-ACRE is working in conjunction with the arboretum and facilities at CSUF.
“U-ACRE doesn’t exist without the arboretum,” she said. “We work together.”
Johnson hopes not only to increase the size of the program, but to maintain the quality of work that students do with community organizations.
“It’s not just expanding, it’s not just collecting community partners like trinkets,” she said. “It needs to be broad. It gets a broad education when students can pick from diverse community partners, but it needs to stay deep.”