Finding Community in Common Ground

Jill Wrigley, Adjunct and General Associate in UMBC’s Interdisciplinary Studies program, developed and teaches courses on the food system and food justice.

Jill Wrigley“Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” –Gary Snyder

When asked how many raised plots in the UMBC Garden their family would like, Ba Zo and Na Lun, my course collaborators and refugees from Burma, turned their gaze to an unused swath of land nearby. Ba Zo smiled and said: “We’d like to have all that.  We could grow a lot of food.”  Along with my students, I followed his gesture and considered the space. Ba Zo remarked that the power and good energy of the earth was waiting there, waiting to be used to grow food.

His suggestion lit our imaginations. I saw an intricate, dense web of food-producing and pollinator-attracting plants and trees inhabited by birds, bugs, and humans above the ground, and fungi and microbes below, all busily generating a mutually beneficial community.

by Jill Wrigley for BreakingGroundThen I blinked, and I saw grass and grass and grass, next to a scrappy patch of woods.

My students had their own set of visions, and through my course, I’m seeking to help bring some of them to fruition.

Particularly because of my work with Great Kids Farm (a Baltimore City Schools experiential learning center), I was invited in spring 2012 to teach an Interdisciplinary Studies seminar on the intersecting challenges that our current food system presents for environmental sustainability, public health and social justice.  My own hunger to literally break ground here at UMBC, and to connect students with communities in Baltimore City, has led me to reshape my courses as engaged and applied learning experiences that are, increasingly, co-created by students and myself.  Two BreakingGround grants and an Entrepreneurship grant from the Alex. Brown Center, and many supportive colleagues at UMBC, have enabled me to do this.

This semester I invited students joining my INDS 430 Creating Food System Justice seminar either to propose their own project or to join a community partner’s project, as long as the project was working at some socially beneficial innovation within the local food system. In experimenting with course structure, I confess to being inspired by the Montessori pedagogical model in which the traditional “Teacher” who conducts a mostly unilateral transference of knowledge to “students” is reframed as “the Guide” who facilitates a process of discovery and cultivation of intrinsic motivation within a community of learners.   In my class this semester, I’ve aimed to anchor the course within students’ own motivations and capacities and then scaffold in academic, personal and professional development as we walk the semester’s path.

While I gathered preliminary course resources and books, I have also been adapting the syllabus and course schedule to tend to particular project imperatives and to deepen student knowledge as needs and interest arise.  I have also sought to incorporate into the semester cycles of study, action and reflection.  At the urging of my TA, INDS Senior Andres Camacho, we also decided to organize ourselves and present the development of our semester’s work through the creation of a WordPress site ( and a Google Drive folder for students to share work and assign readings.

I want my students to read and digest academic literature associated with topics we’re treating this semester, including: the evolution of the internationally recognized Human Right to Food and food justice; food waste; debates about agro-ecology vs. industrial agriculture; hazards to human health caused by the “Western” or “processed food” diet; hunger, food insecurity and disparate food access; civic agency and food system innovations; and various other issues.  Of equal importance to me is the fact that students are learning one another’s names and motivations, and the names and concerns of people in nearby communities. I value the opportunity they are getting to explore more deeply what they care about, and why, and what policymakers, advocates and community members – as well as academic researchers — have to say about these various issues.

As we near the semester’s end, our efforts are coming to fruition or laying the ground for future endeavors. Our five projects this semester include:

“True Greens” – My course is supporting the development of a student-enterprise growing nutrient and taste-dense microgreens on campus (with thanks to UMBC Biology Dept. and their Greenhouse) that can generate weekly greens for sale to UMBC’s Dining Services and area restaurants. Senior INDS major and Course TA Andres Camacho leads this project (for which he won the December 2014 Idea Competition). In partnership with Dining Services, these greens are now sold daily in the The Commons at Wild Greens.

“UMBC New Roots Community Garden” – This group has been conducting institutional advocacy and organizational planning for a campus-based community garden in partnership with the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee that will serve refugees in the area who desire to grow their own food. The students are advocating for a patch of land right next to the UMBC Community Garden to maximize the teaching, learning and community building values of having us all grow together.  INDS student and Sondheim Scholar Rosa Rada, who interned with the Baltimore International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program last summer, brought this initiative to UMBC and is the lead student on this project.

“The Village Farmers Market”– Students in this project are collaborating with Neighbors Without Borders  of West Baltimore to plan and establish a new farmers market in the parking lot of Edmondson-Westside High School in Edmondson Village, the site of destructive blockbusting and years of economic disinvestment (the story of which American Studies Professor Emeritus Ed Orser shared with our class earlier this semester).  The Market is set to open June 6, with one of our students as assistant market manager and volunteer coordinator; another has been generating social media content, and a third has been researching the accessibility of nutrition assistance programs and nutrition education programs at farmers markets.

Jill Wrigley--Student group planting food forest* “The UMBC Food Forest” – This group is being led by senior Geography and Environmental Systems student Dominic Costa, who is making use of his Permaculture Certificate and practicing teaching and project management skills.  This team of students is designing and implementing on campus an “edible ecosystem,” that is, “a consciously designed community of mutually beneficial plants and animals intended for human food production.” Jacke, D., & Toensmeier, E. (2005). Edible Forest Gardens (Vol. One, p. 1). White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub. Students in this team are also collaborating with the the Baltimore Orchard Project, a non-profit in Baltimore City that supports fruit and nut tree harvesting and cultivation to improve healthy food access for current and future generations. On April 28th, we installed the core features of this food forest at the foot of the hill below the UMBC Garden.

Hungry Harvest at UMBC – This student team is collaborating with a young for-profit social enterprise (founded by a recent UMD College Park graduate Evan Lutz) to explore and possibly bring a “recovered food CSA” to the UMBC Campus for staff, faculty and students. Hungry Harvest recovers regionally grown produce that is otherwise thrown away and packages it into weekly deliveries of “shares of food,” creatively innovating off of the farm share CSA model.  For $12 or $18 weekly, customers receive a bag of fresh produce, and one bag is donated to local hunger relief efforts for every bag purchased.  Students hope to lay the foundations for a summer pilot program that would target UMBC apartment dwellers and other staff or faculty on campus during summer sessions.

As for that vacant land that my class and our Burmese guest gardeners surveyed last fall: Some of it is the site of our emergent UMBC Food Forest.  Some of that good earth remains under grass, as the IRC and refugees on a list of aspiring gardeners wait to hear if the vision of a community garden for growing food will receive the UMBC Administration’s approval. We hope for permission in time to produce a bountiful fall harvest.  More to come!

I hope the experiences students are having this semester will support them in their years beyond UMBC.  And, I hope the spaces which they are growing and the connections they are making – within UMBC and with community partners – will take root and flourish.

Jill Wrigley--Food forest installation

Contact the author, Jill Wrigley, at


  1. jackneumeier says:

    So proud of these folks and this space!

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