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Students show off zucchini grown at Church of the Abiding Savior
NCCU Students Tackle Environmental Sustainability

For North Carolina Central University students, giving back starts early. Each summer, before the start of the new semester, incoming freshman participate in a service learning project through the Aspiring Eagles Academy, a five-week residential program that prepares students to think critically, communicate effectively and solve problems. This year the class of 2016 is tackling environmental sustainability by planting and expanding community gardens in Durham.

Working with the NCCU Academic Community Service Learning Program (ACSLP), the students lent their support to three NCCU community partners: St. Titus Episcopal Church, Church of the Abiding Savior and C.C. Spaulding Elementary School.

“Many students have done community service, but this is different,” said Dr. Deborah Bailey, director of ACSLP. “This is service learning. Service learning takes what you read about in theory and allows you to actively engage in the work.” The goal of this project, according to Bailey, is to allow students to see environmental sustainability at work. “Working in a garden is great by itself, but this is much more,” she said. “They’re learning about the impact of food deserts on local communities.”

Any area where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain is considered a food desert. Research by the USDA Economic Research Initiative shows that 7 percent of the Durham County population is considered low-wealth and has low access to food. Nearly 10 percent of children, birth to age 17, have low access to food, and in certain areas of the county that number rises as high as 25 percent. None of the areas where the gardens are located has a supermarket within walking distance.

Statistics like these make community gardens like the one at Church of the Abiding Savior Lutheran Church essential. Started by the church’s men’s group, Lutheran Men in Mission, the garden began with a single plot several years ago. “We had sustainability in mind when we started,” said William Smalls, chairman of the group. “We wanted the congregation and the community, especially the children, to know how food gets to the table.”

Today the garden has more than tripled in size and provides organically grown food to the community year-round. “It’s a free garden,” said Smalls. “That means you pick what you want, whenever you want.” This year the church planted tomatoes, squash, zucchini, okra, peppers, watermelon, sweet potatoes, turnip and collard greens and several herbs.

By the time NCCU students arrived this summer, the garden was in full bloom, so students spent a Saturday morning helping prepare for the fall planting season. The follow-up for the project included writing a reflection paper, small group discussions and a commitment to return in six months and continue the work.

This year will be the first planting for the gardens at St. Titus and C. C. Spaulding. Students helped plant sunflowers and other seedlings. NCCU has long maintained a relationship with all three sites.

 Expanding partnerships with K-12 education is an area of focus for the university identified in the Strategic Plan 2020, completed last year. This initiative is a direct connection to President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This year NCCU attended the gathering and accepted the president’s challenge to bring together diverse religious groups on campus for interfaith cooperation and community service programming. The program challenges students and administrators to serve together on projects that strengthen communities and unite people of diverse religious backgrounds.

“We want our students to think about, ‘Why would a church plant a community garden?’ and how these efforts define true community. These are the seeds we want to build on,” said Bailey.

NCCU encourages students to live out the university motto of Truth and Service through required community service. Each semester, NCCU undergraduates perform a minimum of 15 hours of service toward the 120-hour graduation requirement.