KU Campus Garden
Environmental Action to Revitalize the Heartland, or EARTH, will have a kickoff event from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday to show the public its community garden in the 1300 block of Louisiana Street.
The group of Kansas University students planted fruit and vegetables there and donate most of the produce to Lawrence food pantries.
It’s a garden near the center of Lawrence, surrounded by houses, campus buildings, asphalt and concrete.
But Kansas University students Cindy Vu and Margaret Tran see the garden in the 1300 block of Louisiana Street as a place where students can get outside to satisfy their urge to be green thumbs.
It’s also a way to grow food and donate it to people who need it in Lawrence.
“We wanted to provide them with a way to give back to the community and gain some gardening experience,” said Tran, a Derby senior and co-coordinator for the student group Environmental Action to Revitalize the Heartland.
The group started operating the neglected garden last spring. About 15 students regularly contribute to the garden and grow cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, broccoli, parsley and cilantro.
Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman said the urban garden is one of many examples in Lawrence of the importance on locally grown foods and its contribution to the area. She wants to create a local food policy council to better coordinate all of these efforts and strengthen the region as a hub for locally grown food.
“We can be a county, be a community that leads on this topic and we can shine in our state as leaders in growing our local food system, or we can drag our feet and try to play catch-up later,” Thellman said.
The emphasis on buying locally grown foods is not new to Lawrence.
The Downtown Lawrence Farmers’ Market is the oldest in the state. It’s regularly hopping with vendors and customers.
Several local restaurants are known for featuring local meats, vegetables and fruits, like Local Burger, 714 Vt.
Thursday night at the downtown restaurant Genovese, 941 Mass., customers packed what staff members described as a “tomato fest” because dishes were served using tomatoes produced at local farms.
Several locally owned restaurants feature food grown in the area. Grocery stores like The Community Mercantile, 901 Iowa, and Checkers Foods, 2300 La., also offer local foods.
“We do it mostly to help the community and just to keep it a family-based area,” said Alex Dominguez, a Genovese floor manager. “People know that they can get fresh food here.”
Scott Allegrucci, whose wife, Hilary Brown, owns Local Burger, said Douglas County is ripe for exploring how to expand a local food system.
“It’s sort of happening, informally, and I think Lawrence would be well-served to take a step toward formalizing that,” said Allegrucci, who is a consultant on local economic and local food issues.
He said agricultural economist Ken Meter, of the Minnesota-based Crossroads Institute, studied counties in the Eastern Kaw River region, including Douglas County. Meter said $2 billion worth of food is imported into the agriculturally rich region each year.
Allegrucci said that indicates northeast Kansas counties are missing out on an opportunity to produce more food locally.
That would cut down on costs needed to transport so much food from thousands of miles away, he said. It also has economic development benefits, like promoting agriculturally centered tourism and other jobs.
“There’s some great stuff going on, but Lawrence and the region have a great deal more potential,” he said.
Food policy council
Likely this week, Thellman plans to ask other county commissioners to sign off on creating an advisory board that would seek opportunities for federal grants to aid the local food industry and study how other communities are doing.
She wants a diverse group from the health, agricultural and business communities, including people who work with social service agencies and KU and Kansas State University.
They will seek to cover a wide range of issues surrounding food, like helping feed the hungry in the county and creating new jobs.
“It will be a group that understands that it’s not just about the farming. It’s not just about the food. It’s not just about local or organic food,” Thellman said. “It’s about growing jobs. It’s about bringing in new industry. The food system is an industry, an economic development opportunity.”