June 14, 2024
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Planting the seeds of hope: Harpur Fellows project aids food pantry

Environmental science major Olivia Larocchia Environmental science major Olivia Larocchia
Environmental science major Olivia Larocchia Image Credit: provided photo.

Plant the seed of an idea and you could have a mighty harvest.

Environmental sciences major Olivia Larocchia did just that this summer. Now a senior, she received $4,000 for her Harpur Fellows project: creating the Community Garden of Goodness at the Brookside Educational Center on Long Island.

She had long wanted to create a community garden to benefit the environment and address food insecurity, but wasn’t quite sure how to root that idea in solid ground. A global pandemic didn’t help matters.

“I felt like I lost a year and a half of experiences, a time where I maybe would have had an internship and become closer to figuring out exactly what path I want to go down in the environmental science world,” said Larocchia, who will graduate with her master’s degree in sustainable communities through the 4+1 program in 2023. “So, when I was glancing through my regular emails, I saw one from Harpur Edge about the Harpur Fellows program and suddenly I started mapping out the project in my head. It was then that I knew I had to apply.”

Contacts at her alma mater — Wellington C. Mepham High School — put her in touch with the Brookside Educational Center in Merrick, N.Y. It had everything she needed: outdoor space with several empty garden beds and a biweekly food pantry serving 100 local families.

Her gardening plans shifted multiple times during the course of her work, but ultimately bore fruit — literally. She added plum, elderberry and fig trees, as well as blueberry, raspberry and blackberry bushes. The garden’s harvest included cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, chives, thyme, basil, spinach, zucchini, peppers and green beans, all of which were distributed at the pantry. Before she headed back to campus in August, she made sure to plant fall crops including kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts that were tended by the school’s students and teachers.

Flowers and other plants benefited pollinators such as bees and butterflies, while an on-site compost pile turned food scraps and yard waste from three households into fertilizer, rather than burdening the local landfill. On the human end, families who were otherwise dependent on the shelf-stable but less nutritious options typical of food pantries gained access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Environmental studies instructor George Meindl provided guidance on the garden project, and has been a supportive mentor for Larocchia.

“Not only is Olivia an excellent student, but she has a passion for community engagement,” Meindl said. “She is committed to ensuring that her learning experiences go beyond the classroom to make a positive impact on the lives of local community members, and this project is a perfect representation of this commitment.”

Through the project, Larocchia gained insight into the importance of collaboration and communication. She also gained confirmation that environmental science is the field where she will plant her professional future, fostering the health of both the planet and human community.

She expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to make an impact in people’s lives, while working in concert with the natural world.

“I learned that people generally want to help to make a positive change. Almost everyone I talked to about the project showed such overwhelming willingness to do what they could to help me make the garden happen,” she said. “It seemed like everyone was looking for some good amidst the craziness of the pandemic that we have all been experiencing.”

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