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Natural Awakenings Naples and Fort Myers

Florida Gulf Coast University’s Food Forest: Arlo Simonds Looks in the Rearview Mirror of the Food Forest Success

Feb 28, 2014 10:06AM ● By Linda Sechrist

A good friend of Arlo Simonds, a student of environmental studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, first introduced him to the concept of a campus Food Forest in 2011, just before members of the Food Foresters Club broke ground for their permaculture project. “When I was a freshman, my friend brought me to a couple of planning events and eventually, I was hooked,” says Simonds, who is now a senior, president of the club and its service learning coordinator.

Proud of the overwhelming faculty and student body support for the food forest, Simonds vividly recalls how it managed to come up out of the ground. “Although there were many professors, such as Gerald Segal, founding associate professor of management and director of sustainable business programs at the university’s Lutgert College of Business, as well as the dean of undergraduate studies, supporting it, there were hurdles, too, like acquiring a one-half-acre parcel on the university’s 300 acres of conservation land and raising $110,000 to implement the serious experiment in permaculture, which required enough compost to cover the entire parcel, that mimics a natural, closed-loop ecosystem,” explains Simonds.

“We don’t lose any fertility in the food forest because we produce our own soil by rotating organic matter using a permaculture method called ‘chopping and dropping’,” he elaborates. “This simply means that after a plant is finished producing, we take the biomass and chop it into smaller pieces and lay it on the ground, so that it decomposes and builds soil.”

Simonds jokes that in the food forest, stewards are cultivating soil and food is the byproduct. “We are engaging in a relationship with the soil and encouraging a microbial loop, which is found in any forest. If you walk into the forest and pick up a handful of dirt under the leaves that fall from the trees, you’ll find rich layers that make up the soil. The food forest is like that, now that we’ve been collaborating with Mother Nature for nearly three years,” he remarks, noting that the Food Foresters have been told by many people involved in permaculture that the FGCU model is the best they have seen in a university setting.

Produce from the forest goes to the student body, which has paid for it as part of their tuition. Comparable to a food pantry, students have to learn about the types of plants as well as how to harvest and prepare the nutrient-dense produce grown there. Simonds created a student manual of plant profiles, as well as photos and instructions on harvesting. “While it’s their reference map, it’s my legacy. The food forest changed my diet and health. By spending time there, interacting with the plants and taking care of them, as well as harvesting the fruits of my labor, preparing the food and eating it, I assimilated a new lifestyle, which was very powerful,” he says.

Simonds is active in the Southeast branch of the Real Food Challenge, a movement that leverages the power of youth and universities to create healthy, fair and green food systems. Their primary campaign is to shift $1 billion of existing university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food towards local or community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food systems—“real food”—by 2020. “We’re hopeful that the movement can take hold here, because it has had success at other universities,” advises Simonds.

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