Sustainability Week: Thesis Project Becomes Campus Garden

Originally posted on The Marist Circle here by Makena Gera. 

In the Fall semester of 2016, Alec Lee and Alexa Kovlakas began their honors senior thesis project. Working with professors James Snyder and Joseph Campisi, their goal was to create a common space on the Marist Campus that educated students about themselves, the environment and their food.

The preparation of the garden was extensive; each and every detail was painstakingly thought out, but the end result is well worth the effort. After brainstorming their ideas and connecting with members of the Marist community, Lee and Kovlakas began planning, designing, testing soil and creating their official proposal. After two long semesters of hard work, their plan was finally approved, and construction began this past semester.

Lee, an environmental science major, was inspired by the Town of Poughkeepsie and its status as a “food desert,” or an area where it is difficult to find or afford high-quality foods.

“It was amazing to me that we’re here on campus, and you hear people complaining about the food options in the dining hall, but people right outside our gates don’t have access to [any of the] food we have,” said Lee on his reasoning for creating the garden. However, after being linked with Kovlakas by Dr. Snyder and Prof. Campisi, his idea evolved into a combined proposal for an on-campus community space for Marist students and staff.

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Snyder notes that, although is it an honors program thesis project, the garden is ultimately “an open space [on campus” for all students and faculty to use, visit, and learn from. Motivated by the sentiment that many people are hugely divorced from the truth about where their food comes from, “[Alec] wanted people to get in touch with their food’s distribution, its consumption and its production.”

The goal was not only to have an area to grow produce, but to create a space that educates and improves the lives of the community. The garden will benefit both students in the Ethics of Food seminar – who will be able to use it as an outdoor classroom – as well as students across many other disciplines.

“The idea is to have food as a platform to expand on other things,” said Lee. The garden will be an interdisciplinary space for any student of faculty member who wants to use it; whether it be the fashion department growing plants for textiles and natural dyes, or an art class growing flowers to observe, the garden will become a multi-use space for the Marist community.

One of the most important aspects of the garden is its future use as a food source for Marist College as well as the surrounding Poughkeepsie area. Lee hopes to collaborate with Sodexo and the Marist kitchen staff to use the garden’s produce in the dining halls, in addition to using leftover food scraps for compost.

Lee describes this relationship as going from “cradle to cradle,” a term used in environmental science to describe the act of using a product’s waste to make another product, rather than simply throwing it out.

“Sodexo has so much food waste, and compost is great for the garden…The food that we’ll be growing will then come back in another life cycle as the nutrients needed to grow next season’s crops,” said Lee.

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“Community gardens are more than just growing food,” said Lee. “A garden can convey a purpose and experience depending on how it is designed. Instead of having the garden be monotone, we matched the cedar bed’s color to the outside of the existing buildings, and the fence itself was designed to capture the view of the river.”

Reflecting on the success of the project, Dr. Snyder stated that “one of the amazing things about [Marist] is that with one issue a student is truly passionate about, and with just a little bit of help and support from the Marist faculty, something extraordinary can be created.”

In this instance, the creation is a garden which will stay as a part of the Marist community for years to come, providing a hands-on educational experience about the importance of ethical food production and consumption. Students and faculty will benefit from the wide range of opportunities the garden provides, and in the future, will spread their knowledge across their own communities.

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