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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Fruits of Urban Farming the Pride of Classroom to Table

Old Dominion University's Rachel Schroeder is a plant ecologist determined to get the fruits of her urban gardens to people who need them the most.

It isn't easy. Challenges are plentiful when it comes to planting, nurturing and harvesting three Norfolk vegetable beds, with a few student volunteers, while spending personal money for supplies.

But the boost Schroeder's "Classroom to Table" project gives her beneficiary, the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore, is worth it to this wife, mother and busy biology lecturer.

"It's a good thing I love it," Schroeder said. "Otherwise, it would just be work."

Schroeder worries over Hampton Roads' "food deserts," areas where residents have limited access to fresh produce and other nutritious foods. Usually that's because they can't afford them or can't get to where they are sold.

So last March, Schroeder launched "Classroom to Table" to help put vegetables off the vine into the neediest hands.

Unable to create a garden on campus, Schroeder reached out and arranged to plant and grow vegetables at the Westside Produce market, on Colley Ave. near Old Dominion's campus; at the Five Points Community Farm Market on Church St.; and the Fawn Street Community Garden, across the street from Five Points.

She and a few loyal students like Tanya Guinto, a senior biology major, circulate each week through the three plots, weeding, watering and feeding their crops without chemicals.

"I do it because it's for a good cause and it's different," Guinto said. "I really like how hands-on it is. Weeding is actually very therapeutic. And I learn a lot. Then I get to work with freshmen and teach them a lot of what I've learned."

In a good week with agreeable growing conditions, Schroeder said "Classroom to Table" can provide 20 to 30 pounds of vegetables to the food bank. But she said anything, and everything, is appreciated. Produce is the food bank's greatest need, and by necessity it moves quickly out of the facility to people and families eagerly waiting.

"We don't have enough food in general, but fresh fruits and vegetables are always a big challenge," said Renee Figurelle, chief operating officer of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore. "So the support Rachel and Old Dominion have been giving us is great."

Schroeder graduated in environmental science from Texas A & M -- Corpus Christi and moved to Hampton Roads with her husband, a Naval officer. After getting her master's at Christopher Newport University, Schroeder earned her Ph.D in ecological science at ODU four years ago.

She teaches classes in ecology and global change biology, exploring topics such as sustainable farming and "food insecurity" among college students who struggle economically to eat healthy and regularly.

On campus but also in local neighborhoods, she said, "There are people who aren't getting access to the foods they need, especially nutritious food."

Raising such awareness was the focus of last Friday's healthy-eating "FNV Live! rally (Fruits and Vegetables) at ODU's Ted Constant Convocation Center, where First Lady Michelle Obama and entertainment celebrities appeared.

"It's an important campaign to encourage healthy eating choices," said Schroeder, who added that while "Classroom to Table" is dirty-hands work, she is grateful for the community partners who provide space for her to do it.

"The students and I are keeping their beds weeded and well-maintained, we're planting things with the seasons, and we donate all that we can donate," Schroeder said. "Everybody's winning."

A website with more information about "Classroom to Table" can be visited here, and a Facebook page here.

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