For some students at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, starting gardens this spring was much more than a way to pass time during the pandemic.

Nearly a third of college students across the UT system are food insecure, without access to enough and nutritious food, but the End Hunger/Feed Change initiative is growing awareness and ways to address hunger.

This summer its Vols Grow: Seed to Table “grow-along” program is using webinars to teach students, faculty and community members about a range of topics, from how to start a garden to the history of food production, recipe planning and local resources, such as food pantries.

“We hope this summer program increases awareness of food insecurity and food justice issues in students and the wider community,” Helene Sinnreich, associate professor of religious studies and member of the EHFC theme year committee, said in a UT news release.

“Through increasing students’ knowledge of food systems, we empower them to take an active role in combating hunger.”

Kaitlyn Meadows, a rising junior and biology major, is raising vegetables in a small plot beside her parents’ driveway.

“I am really big on sustainable and ethical food, so to be able to grow it in your own yard is kind of empowering,” she said.

Meadows admits that part of her was expecting the plants not to survive or produce like they have. But she’s learned more than how to garden.

“There are a lot of people whom food insecurity affects here in Blount County and East Tennessee,” she said. “We think about hunger as being a more global issue, but we forget that it’s affecting people right here, especially now with the pandemic. I know people are having trouble getting out and getting groceries.”

“Being able to give some of our produce to neighbors has been really impactful for me,” Meadows said, noting one recipient just turned 90 years old. “It makes me feel good to know that they are safe and we can provide for them.”

She started planting seeds inside in April after checking out squash and radishes from UT’s Seed Library. Tomatoes and pickling cucumbers came from a plant sale at Heritage High School, where she graduated from in 2018, and a local greenhouse.

In addition to the webinars, Meadows has gained gardening advice from the Farmers’ Almanac, friends and her own mother, who showed her how to plant the squash in mounds. While Meadows recently moved into a Knoxville apartment, she returns several times a week and her mom helps with the garden in the interim. “My dad’s really enjoying the fruits of the labor,” Kaitlyn said.

Meadows already is thinking about other gardening projects, including planting flowers. “I would love to have a garden that attracts pollinators,” she said. Other students’ elevated gardening beds and greenhouse-type structures have inspired her too.

Ultimately she hopes to make an even bigger impact, however, continuing into graduate school for a career that may include working in national parks and wildlife conservation.

“I’ve always been an outdoor enthusiast, and I want to protect and conserve that for generations to come,” Meadows said.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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