August Hoffman wasn’t seeking an antidote to what he calls “the Kardashian culture” until his students donated their homemade apple pies.
The apples came available through relationships with orchards forged by two professors of psychology — Hoffman at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, and Barb Curchack at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights. The orchards were part of a community garden project the two began in 2012 that bolsters food shelves with fresh produce, but also can change students’ lives.
“The gardens are a reaction against the cultural entitlement that students have become saturated with, the ‘what’s in it for me?’ view,” Hoffman said. “The whole Kardashian culture — people are forgetting that that’s not real. When students are provided with these experiences, it’s almost like they’re discovering this whole new way of living.”
Curchack and Hoffman’s project mostly is known as the garden, given that its official name is the Inver Hills Community College-Metropolitan State University Interdisciplinary Community Garden and Orchard. Mostly, tools are the hands at the ends of people’s arms, but the gardeners do have a rototiller, which is being put to use these days on an acre plot on the Inver Hills campus. Cabbage and tomato plants are in the ground, with more to come.
The garden idea emerged when Hoffman moved to Minnesota from California, bringing with him a passion for community programs that provide opportunities for residents to work collaboratively.
“People discover they have so much more in common,” he said. “Relationships improve. Attitudes improve. We can’t deny the evolutionary need for human engagement.”
Open space is dear on the Metro State campus, but when he met Curchack at a department meeting at Inver Hills, they discovered that they had a shared interest in gardening and community. “And,” he said, “I just happened to notice that this campus has a lot of space.”
They contacted Tim Wynes, the college’s president, who gave his OK. A grant provided them with literally the seed money to get started.
Earning a grade for service
The garden is divided into three sections. One-third is for 40 individual plots for community residents, who got a hand with the rototilling from students. The center third is for an orchard of 50 apple trees donated by the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, based in Pennsylvania. The remaining third is a communal garden where students cultivate, plant, weed, mulch and work as a team.
For some, this is their first experience in a garden, said Hoffman, who’s a certified master gardener in Wisconsin.
“In my courses, community service is always an option,” he said. “I tell students that they can either write a five- to 10-page report or do 10 hours of community service. And of course I’m always pushing the garden.
“Some are reluctant at first, but once they’re out there working, they have some really positive experiences.”
Graduates have come back to work with current students, and Curchack and Hoffman receive inquiries from other schools seeking to replicate their model.
Harvested produce goes to neighborhood food shelves and pantries, and the group also collects apples that would otherwise be left on orchards’ grounds. Last year, the donation enabled the group to make more than 100 apple pies that were delivered to food shelves to enthusiastic thanks.
“That’s really the key to everything when it comes to community service and volunteer work: When people can experience the benefits of sharing and giving, that makes us want to do it again.”
This week, six Metro State students will travel to Guatemala for 10 days to help plant several hundred fruit trees in a rural village, “so not only are we reaching out locally, but we’re also going more global,” Hoffman said.
Then in June, a group will drive to the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota to plant more fruit trees donated by Gerten’s garden center in Inver Grove Heights. Hoffman said anyone who wants to come along and help is welcome.