Campus Gardens Support Timberwolf Pantry

Two women plant small plants in garden bed.
Shannon Autrey, an Arkansas Cooperative Extension Services agent, plants fall plants in the Kirk Building garden.

Since 2018, the Timberwolf Pantry has provided food and hygiene products to the UACCM community in need, ranging from canned goods and boxed foods to basic toiletry products. The pantry has relied on generous donations, but that recently changed with the introduction of vegetable garden beds that contribute fresh produce.

These gardens are located outside the Kirk Building and Earl Love Child Student Center and produce a full array of crops throughout year. They’re maintained due to the hard work and green thumb of Shannon Autrey, the agent with the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Services office located on campus.

Origins of the Garden

The idea came from a conversation between Autrey and Education Instructor Kara Jones about campus gardens.
Gaden beds
Earle Love Child Support Center Gardens. Courtesy of Shannon Autrey

“Shannon is instrumental in promoting fresh fruits and vegetables to all the schools in Conway County, including child care facilities,” Jones said. “We are lucky enough to have her on our UACCM campus, so we began talking about how gardening could be involved with the Timberwolf Pantry, an employee supported take-what-you-need type of pantry on campus to help with food insecurity.”  

Funding and supplies came from a variety of sources. The Extension Services office took the lead, as the beds offered students an education on nutrition; also, the community came together. Tractor Supply in Morrilton provided soil and a water hose. The Farm Bureau’s Women’s Committee donated plants. 

On planting day, UACCM’s youngest students—children from ­­newborn to age six at the Earle Love Child Support Center—and their parents gathered at the garden. The children planted seeds, marigolds, and sunflowers. The gardens have introduced them to different fruits and vegetables and taught them the importance of agriculture. Fresh vegetables like broccoli and lettuce are even served in the children’s lunches. 

Day in and day out, Autrey looks after the plants’ health. She waters them the first thing in the morning when she arrives on campus and from time to time gives the soil a little fertilizer to boost its nitrogen. She combats pests—including a case of squash borers over the summer—and sends samples to a lab to identify culprits that threaten growth. 

But even for the gardens’ first year—typically a period ripe with regular problems—harvests have been successful. Tomatoes grew in the spring and summer. Lettuce, spinach, and garlic grew in the fall. Deep into December, the gardens were still producing mustard greens and collard greens. An adjacent herb garden has even contributed to the pantry with thyme, sage, and oregano.

Fighting Student Hunger

Like the Timberwolf Pantry, the gardens are aimed at combating food insecurity among students—meaning those who don’t always know where their next meal is coming from, or if it’s coming at all—which is prevalent on college campuses. 

Students from the University of Central Arkansas’s Nutrition and Dietetics program, Kaylee O’Hare and Jordan Bellew, have been working with Autrey on researching the issue of student hunger.
O’Hare stated that the problem may be so frequent on campuses because many adults return to college. With the high cost of living expenses and a college education, people often do not have the resources to pay for both. “It’s a sacrifice just in itself to come back to school,” she said. “They have to think about rent. A lot of them have to take care of kids and families. So often, the meal of the day quickly becomes the old college standby of Ramen noodles.” 

For Conway County and the state as a whole, hunger remains a problem. According to studies, 17 percent of Conway County residents are food insecure, Bellew said. That is just slightly below the state average, where 20 percent of Arkansans struggle to find food for their families. That makes the state ranked second in the nation for food insecurity. In a lot of ways, it remains a hidden problem.

 “A lot of times, food insecurity is not something that people want to admit,” O’Hare said. “Even though there are resources, we also have to think about how we can get resources available where they feel free to get them.”

Gardens are a Source of Education

Adults and children plant seeds in garden bed
Planting Day at the Earle Love Child Support Center. Courtesy of Shannon Autrey. 

The gardens are a community activity as students, staff, and faculty can monitor the garden’s progress and learn about what it offers. While students harvest the crop to place in the pantry, some even pick produce straight from the beds. 

“We just left the beds open, so when someone saw something that’s ready, they are more than welcome to get it,” Autrey said. “We wanted it to be open and available to anybody who needed it.” 

There are two pantries on campus—the Library Complex and the Kirk Building—that operate on a take-what-you-need policy. Since the pantry has introduced fresh produce, Autrey uses one measure of success. 

“Every time I would check the pantry at the end of the day and make sure the vegetables aren’t going bad, they are always gone,” she said.  

Future plans for the gardens include installing a self-watering system used in raised beds, where a reservoir at the bottom of the beds gives plants a consistent source of water even during extreme weather conditions. Autry also plans to install shading by the beds at the Kirk Building and to use the plants for more educational opportunities on campus.

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