Hamline News

You Are What You Eat



Shields (Bloomington, Minnesota) is the founder of SPROUT (Students Proposing Real Options for Underutilized Territory), a new student organization devoted to food democracy, sustainability issues, and raising local produce. While the new group is strongly rooted in the Hamline community, it took a trip abroad for Shields to become aware of her connection to the food in her own backyard.

Growing a Green Idea
A Spanish major, Shields always knew studying in a country where she could practice the language was a must—and one Hamline promoted. “We live in such a globalized world it’s important to have experiences abroad, which is why Hamline encourages it,” says Shields. “Hamline is huge on gaining a global perspective and being a global citizen.” Yet while living in Ecuador during the fall 2007 semester Shields picked up more than just a better accent. Through her experiences living with a host family and working with a local fair-trade organization she began to appreciate the Latin American attitude toward food. “In Ecuador I recognized an everyday cultural or societal knowledge about where food comes from, what we’re eating, and why that [recognition] is important,” she explains. “I think that’s often lost in the United States.”

Shields spent the following semester building on her food education by traveling extensively throughout Central America, including a month-long stop in Guatemala to volunteer with a permaculture and seed-saving organization. By the time she returned to Hamline in the summer of 2008, she was determined to raise awareness of food issues. “I wanted students to feel more connected with where their food comes from,” says Shields. “I initially met with administrators and professors to get a feel for the interest on campus, and there was a ton—a lot of momentum and a growing consciousness about reconnecting with foods in our local climate.”

January in Minnesota might seem like an inopportune time to start an organization focused on local foods, but SPROUT had no problem gaining notice and gathering interested students. In the lead up to warmer weather the group organized a public film series examining the food industry and worked with Hamline’s facilities management to find unused plots of land on campus for its much-desired garden.

Professor of anthropology and chair of the East Asian studies department David Davies was enlisted as the organization’s advisor, though he claims SPROUT’s high level of organization made that title superfluous. “They didn’t need me as much as I hoped they would,” he laughs. “I would say ‘If you need anything let me know,’ but they wanted to do it themselves, which is how good student organizations should be. I expected that because Margaret is exactly the kind of leader we try to create at Hamline.”

Share What You Sow
Once spring hit SPROUT was out in full force, filling 10 large containers on campus with herbs such as fennel and marjoram, as well as marigolds and edible flowers. But the crowning jewel was SPROUT’s large garden behind the Hamline United Methodist Church. The group, which Shields says has more than 20 active members during the height of the summer, reclaimed the church’s empty plot and quickly began generating crops.

The garden’s hefty yield gave Shields another idea about how to connect the community with food: she approached the Hamline Midway Coalition, a nonprofit neighborhood organization, about donating the produce to the community. “We’re using university and church land, we got donations for everything from seeds to compost to tools, and the garden is run with all student volunteers, so we liked the idea of giving the food away for free to people who don’t have access to fresh produce,” she explains.

The Hamline Midway Coalition directed her to the Hamline Midway Elders, a nonprofit organization that cares for senior citizens living in the area. The group became the main recipient of SPROUT’s bounty, regularly delivering its fresh produce to 13 local seniors.

Naturally the Hamline Midway Coalition welcomed Shields’ efforts to bridge campus with the community, appointing her a fellow in the organization’s Leadership in Support of Neighborhood program through which Shields and other fellows work on various local projects to develop their leadership capabilities. Jun-Li Wang, a community organizer with the coalition, said the strength of SPROUT proves Shields has created a permanent asset.

“It was clear from the beginning that part of the goal of SPROUT was to work with the community,” says Wang. “The project will be ongoing at Hamline and within the neighborhood.”

With the fall 2009 semester Shields’ last at Hamline, she is confident SPROUT will carry on in her absence. But will she hang up her gardening gloves permanently? Her answer is as varied as her garden’s annual yield. “Maybe law school, though I have some opportunities to work on farms to learn practical organic farming methods. I’d also like to go to Brazil and study Portuguese,” she laughs. “Really, life has taken me some great places already.”

By: Monica Wright