Connecting Through Gardening
Wanting to study food insecurity and interested in developing social ties of community support in the Brazos Valley, professor Sarah Gatson created the service-learning research program “Everybody Eats.”
By Mia Mercer ‘23
Associate professor Sarah Gatson from the Department of Sociology has always been interested in gardening. In 2011, she started a small herb garden at her home. Now, almost 10 years later, Gatson’s small herb garden has transformed into a larger project called Everybody Eats that spans across the Brazos Valley focusing on the sociology of community, citizenship, identity, and culture.
Gatson officially founded the collaborative research program Everybody Eats in 2013. Through this program, Gatson and her research team analyze how access to food affects the community with the goal of creating an established network of mutually supportive food gardeners, and a regional public seed library.
“At the core of the Everybody Eats project is the idea that we are all participants in our local communities,” Gatson said. “As inhabitants of communities, we all have agency in co-creating our ecological and environmental landscapes. However, we do not all have equal access to the systemic power necessary to meet all the human needs directly related to local ecologies: clean air, potable water, and adequate, nutritious food.”
According to a recent study by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 36% of college students are food insecure, and Aggies are no exception. Texas A&M University is located in a food desert, meaning a substantial amount of its residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. To combat these issues, Gatson and her team developed gardening interventions in a collaborative effort with colleagues in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“Our current interventions include utilizing reused glass jars to make quick and nutritious on-the-go salads and providing garden kits to WIC clients and students on campus,” Alyssa Shewmaker ‘21, a current nutrition major, shared. “With both of these interventions, we also provide nutrition education handouts including recipes, describing different vegetables and herbs, how they are used, gardening information, and basic nutrition information. These handouts educate individuals on how to best utilize the end product — freshly grown produce.”
Gatson explained that food underlies many foundational concepts in sociology. To form a deeper understanding of the role food plays in our everyday lives, Everybody Eats focuses on the importance of food security in the Brazos Valley.
“Food security will always depend upon climate and weather, and other structural (intentional or not) disruptions to the supply chain,” Gatson explained. “When successful, gardening provides ready access to a variety of the freshest of foods, access to some control over what food may be available, a redundancy of a diversity of different foods, and directly affects food security.”
Gardening also benefits society. According to Gatson, the concept of networked gardeners brings a community together.
“We don’t have one plot of land that people are granted access to, but rather we aim to facilitate access to gardening wherever people live,” Gatson said. “I think this is a different kind of benefit, because it aims to develop denser ties across communities over time, rather than controlling access to a particular space.”
Everybody Eats also connects a community of scholars and Brazos Valley residents. Made up of faculty, students, and members of the local community, Everybody Eats is constructed on a team-based approach to authentic research in higher education. It also includes a core service-learning component, which is an educational approach to learning that applies classroom objectives to community service projects in order to produce positive change.
Gatson and her team are currently working to create the first physical home of the seed library by 2023 when the first 10-year projected phase of the Everybody Eats project ends. She said the importance of the Everybody Eats project is in the name.
“Everybody eats and has a right to eat, and food underlies so many of the key, foundational concepts in sociology, ” Gatson shared. “Everything from popular culture (e.g., BBQ competitions and regional bragging rights) to politics (what counts as farmland and who counts as a farmer) can be studied by starting from a lens that takes food seriously as both biological fuel and cultural expression.”
Gatson’s Tips for Beginner Gardeners
Having participated in urban and residential food gardening all her life, Gatson is no stranger to planting seeds and helping them grow. Equipped with her own extensive garden, the title of Texas Master Gardener (which she earned in 2016), and as an active member in the Brazos County Texas Master Gardener chapter, Gatson was eager to share some gardening tips to help bring the produce section of your garden to life.
“Herbs and spices are both usually easy to grow, and are amenable to small spaces. Of course I say that with over ten self-seeded cilantro/coriander plants in my garden right now! Also, herbs and spices are often quite expensive and hard to keep fresh if purchased conventionally but when you can just clip what you need from a plant that may become a perennial right outside your door, two barriers to access (money and time) are overcome.”
Grow something you’ll like.
“My main tip is to try growing one of your favorite foods, or a key ingredient in one of your favorite dishes.”