AKRON, Ohio — On the site of a former fraternity house, there is a lot "growing on" thanks to an urban garden created by a group of people at the University of Akron.
At UA's Community Garden on Fir Hill, students— including several from the Urban Agriculture Club— have planted strawberries, cantaloupe, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, pickling cucumbers, cilantro, basil, mint and other fruits, vegetables and herbs.
"Myself and several students have really wanted to get our hands dirty working in the garden and get a bit more experienced growing our own produce," said Alissa Coonfield, a PhD student and member of the club.
However, the growers also have a much bigger purpose in mind— to help other students struggling to have enough food on hand.
During the pandemic, University of Akron officials have reported a 260% increase in food insecurity among students.
"Amid the pandemic, we saw an overwhelming number of students who are coming to us with food insecurity. They're having a hard time putting food on the table, maybe paying rent, paying for utilities or childcare," said Ali Doehring, the director of ZipAssist, a student advocacy and support office.
Because of that concern, Doehring feels access to produce is critical for students right now.
"A lot of them are talking about inflation that they're seeing at the grocery store— the inflation on hygiene items, but also food items," she said.
Seeing the problem, many students looked to be part of the solution.
With $10,000 in community funding, and a grant, the urban garden really began to bloom last month.
The food that pops out of the soil beds is donated to Campus Cupboard, a UA pantry providing food to students in need.
"Being able to actually do something positive for folks that really could use a bit of positivity, it means a lot to them and also to us," Coonfield said.
There are also mental health and wellness aspects to the tranquil gardens, including posts that can be used to hang hammocks, tables, a relaxing wind chime and self-care stones with messages on them like, "You rock" or "You Matter."
"As we hear about barriers that are facing students, we find tangible solutions using community partners," Doehring said.
Students and faculty have plans to expand the Community Garden recognizing what's grown here will yield more food for those who need it.
"This is just the beginning," Coonfield said. "We definitely want to add more raised beds in here and really grow lots of substantial crops that we can distribute throughout the season."