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National sustainability organization AASHE awards PCC with its highest honor

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The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has awarded Portland Community College the 2015 AASHE Sustainability Award for aiding students who go hungry at the college’s Rock Creek Campus, 17705 NW Springville Road.​

The award recognizes how the campus has served its student population, half of which receive financial aid. Through the Rock Creek Learning Garden, college resources and AmeriCorps members, staff were able to increase access to fresh, healthy, sustainably grown food using hands-on learning opportunities, implementing incentive-based programs and using the space to teach sustainable farming practices.

“The Learning Garden provides open access that engages students in learning sustainable farming methods and collaborative problem solving,” said Sandra Fowler-Hill, Rock Creek Campus president. “It is a highly effective teaching lab that has become a focal point on our campus. It is a well deserved and prestigious honor for the college.”

AASHE received 113 submissions from 84 institutions spanning three countries (U.S., Canada and Singapore) for this award.

“This validates what we strive for, which is to do innovative and important food justice work,” said Rock Creek’s Sustainability Coordinator Elaine Cole, who planned the garden’s success along with garden coordinator Nora Lindsey. “My team feels very passionate about the food we grow, soil we build, minds we educate and community we cultivate. We strongly believe that our rural campus, farm and learning garden, is in a unique position to be offering an agriculture or food systems degree program that could address the issues we are facing today.”

Established in 2007 on a 3.64 acre space where faculty, classes and community members can dabble in growing food, the garden has been developed to the point where today it functions as a working farm and produces more than 5,300 pounds of food annually. This transformation was made possible in 2010, when a master plan was commissioned and infrastructure such as raised beds, walking paths and irrigation was developed.

Today, the garden is home to a 65-tree fruit orchard, 32 large raised beds and approximately a half-acre of row crops and areas for grapes, kiwis, blueberries, and cane fruits. In addition to the crops, staff and students have built solar-powered irrigation, a cob tool shed with solar-powered irrigation, an earthen oven with a green roof, rainwater catchment systems, and installed eight beehives, mason beehives, an indoor hoop house and hydroponic growing areas for winter farming. This year, nearly 50 staff, faculty and students had access to 16 raised beds to grow their own food.

To address food insecurity on campus, staff partnered with campus food service and the Women’s Resource Center’s student food pantry to make donations, provide a weekly campus market that accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and established volunteer work opportunities for a food incentive program. The garden’s work-for-food program encourages student volunteers, who receive $5 per hour of work to buy fresh food or flowers from the Portlandia Farm Standia.

Besides developing the garden and increasing production, the Sustainability Office has brought in programs and divisions to provide community-based learning opportunities and created on-site classroom collaborations. The garden also regularly joins forces with student government, student clubs, resource centers, and faculty to create both special events and student-centered projects that benefit the garden and the community.

As a result, the garden hosted 24 classes and 32 sustainability tours, and had more than 1,000 contact hours with students in 2014. During spring term of this year, volunteers clocked 675 hours in the garden double the previous record of 265.

For the future, garden coordinators said they are planning to build a classroom structure that will be a center for beginner urban farmer training. Plus, expansion of bee and other pollinator habitat on campus is in the works.

“We hope to keep increasing production in the garden through the winter months, grow more specialty items like flowers, herbs, and fruits, and work with the new Rock Creek food lab (a demonstration kitchen) to be able to produce added-value products from what we grow in the Learning Garden,” Lindsey said. “Our long term goal is to develop for-credit sustainable agriculture classes that are based out of the Learning Garden.”

AASHE is a national membership-driven non-profit organization that works to advance sustainability in higher education. It provides resources, tools and professional development opportunities to faculty, staff, students and administrators as well as those in businesses that support higher education.