Near the back corner of a small greenhouse, Sierra Grandy watered a row of habañero peppers that were just starting to sprout. Her professor, August Hoffman, looked over crates of burgeoning tomatoes and beans, lettuce and sunflowers and just about every kind of vegetable needed to start a community garden.
Grandy and her classmates at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul are building the garden for their neighborhood as an experiment of sorts. They’re not solely trying to grow food to donate to pantries or create garden space for a neighborhood with few grocery stores. They’re also trying to learn what happens to them and their neighbors, both physically and mentally, when they give up their free time to work together.
Humans have become hard-wired over millennia to work together for the common good, said Hoffman, who teaches evolutionary and community psychology.
But as the world becomes increasingly siloed — especially in response to the pandemic — and more of our time is spent online, many of us are losing any sense of connection, he said. Even in our own neighborhoods.
“We’re in this era of technology and Zoom meetings and more and more work is moving online,” he said. “And that technology is necessary and beneficial, but people are feeling disconnected.”
That disconnection has made even seemingly small projects that bring people together who otherwise might never meet, such as a community garden, extremely beneficial.
Hoffman and his students are studying volunteer work almost as if it were a kind of medicine. It doesn’t necessarily matter exactly how people give their time, Hoffman said. What seems to matter is that when people are brought together to achieve any common goal, social connections are strengthened, prejudices dissipate and people simply tend to feel less alone.
It’s more important than ever to have these face-to-face interactions, even if done from a distance, while much of the world has moved indoors because of the virus, he said.
“This kind of work reduces anxiety and depression and it has led to improvements in overall physical health,” Hoffman said.
Community gardens are the perfect starting points for this kind of research.
The work can be tedious at times, especially when weeding needs to be done on weekend mornings. It forces college students to get outside, working with each other and members of the community, to grow the food. Progress is easy to measure and the goal is clear and attainable: to grow as much food as possible for food banks and nearby kitchens at churches and other organizations.
The question that Hoffman is trying to answer is: What does completing and taking up the task do for the volunteers?
It’s hard to track the exact benefits empirically, he said. But for years Hoffman has been having his students keep track of how close they feel to each other, to the school and to the community surrounding Metropolitan State.
Time and again, it’s the students who are spending Saturday mornings pulling weeds or delivering apples to food shelters in the late fall who feel the closest.
“It’s one thing to read about community service work and the power of resilience, but it’s a whole other thing to get outside and experience it in real time,” Hoffman said.
Grandy, a junior, has been helping germinate the vegetable seeds all spring in the green house. There has been much less face-to-face interaction than typical as volunteers keep their distance because of the pandemic.
Still, she believes in the work and is proud of what she’s been able to do so far.
“It is satisfying watching plants grow that I started and knowing that, in time, they will be given to people who need healthy food,” she said. That “helps me feel less helpless in these crazy times.”
The food will be grown throughout the spring and summer. In the late fall, Hoffman and his students will go to an apple orchard at Sunrise River Farm in Wyoming, Minn. They’ll pick apples that have either just fallen or would be otherwise left to rot on the trees at the very end of picking season. Hoffman expects to collect and deliver about 6,000 pounds of food to local pantries.
“There’s something so visceral about food and working with your hands to gather it,” Hoffman said. “I hear it so many times from my students that they weren’t really looking forward to going out and doing these service projects. But once we’re out there and we’re doing it, we’re discovering that these are the experiences we really enjoy and that we really remember.”