RIT graduate Cameron Hebda ’12 (public policy/political science) holds up a 2-foot-long zucchini to the sounds of “ooohs” and “aaahs” coming from the youngsters who are craning their necks to catch glimpses.
“We normally don’t let our vegetables get this large, but the kids really wanted to see just how big it would grow,” Hebda explains.
It’s this enthusiasm that persuaded Hebda, a former honors student from Avon, N.Y., to accept a position as summer coordinator for the Field to Table Project, a resident-led initiative that promotes health, life skills and community investment within Rochester’s Marketview Heights neighborhood.
The program is part of RIT University/Community Partnerships, spearheaded through the College of Liberal Arts, in which students and faculty have unique opportunities for learning and engaged scholarship. Since 1997, more than 20 RIT faculty members and 700 students from across a variety of disciplines have worked with neighborhood leaders and participated in projects such as developing business plans; creating asset maps for community planning; leadership development and action planning; creating community health initiatives using photography, video and Web-based technology; and in this case, cultivation of the Children’s Garden at 127 First St.
“The main focus of the Field to Table program is developing a community garden and teaching about healthy lifestyles,” Hebda says. “Within that we have three main components: physical activity, cooking and gardening, and arts and expression. We expose neighborhood kids to things they’ve never seen before while inspiring their imaginations.”
As an undergraduate student at RIT, Hebda became involved with the program through summer co-ops and continued his involvement as a volunteer throughout the year. He knew this was a step in the right direction for him after graduation.
“Being involved in this project was the defining experience for me during my college career,” Hebda says. “I bounced around through a few different programs while trying to figure out my role in my community. It’s really true what they say about learning so much from children. This was, and continues to be, a great opportunity for me to sharpen my problem-solving skills while participating in my community.”
The children and community residents also enjoy the fruits—and vegetables— of their labor. The produce they grow—including eggplant, collard greens, carrots, beets, zucchini, lettuce and peppers along with more than 50 other varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs—is available to them to encourage healthy cooking and eating at home and an understanding of where their produce comes from. Every Wednesday, chefs from Wegmans visited the garden and cooked up healthy dining options using fresh ingredients from the garden.
“RIT University/Community Partnerships supports and propels resident-led initiatives in Rochester while broadening and deepening the educational experience for RIT students,” says Jane Amstey, program coordinator. “In the case of this community garden project, the RIT students are working in the garden, taking what they’re learning in the classroom and applying it in the real world. Additionally, many of the residents of the city’s northeast neighborhoods don’t have access to fresh produce or don’t have transportation that makes it easy to acquire. Our program is based on co-equal partnerships, with community members and RIT students viewed as both educators and learners.”
“The garden project started with The Marketview Heights Collective Action Team, a resident group committed to strengthening their neighborhoods,” adds Ann Howard, senior associate dean, College of Liberal Arts. “Through a lot of hard work, the residents have created a number of gardens near the Rochester Public Market Union Street corridor. Through the efforts of the residents, along with Pamela Reese Smith, community project administrator with PathStone Corp., the program has blossomed. RIT University/Community Partnerships is an active partner with this group, offering RIT students opportunities to work with residents on this and other community projects.”
The gardening program also pairs RIT students with city high school students to encourage community engagement while sharing college-based knowledge and experiences with young people about to embark in higher education or the workforce.
Three years ago, Elijah Crocker, an instrumental major at Rochester’s School of the Arts, began working in the garden. Now, he joins the kids five days a week. “The kids come to the garden every day looking forward to learning new things about cooking, eating, gardening. I wish I had more knowledge about healthy eating and gardening when I was younger. But now, I can take things from the garden, bring them home and cook healthy meals for my family.”
Crocker hopes to continue putting in his time in the garden.
“I’m a senior this year, so hopefully I’ll be working here next summer and then maybe as a college student—maybe at RIT, you never know.”