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Garden group promotes growing local food

The summer months make for a quiet office at UNBC for the Prince George Public Interest Research Group, but its learning garden, nestled between the student residences and the bioenergy plant, is in full bloom.

The summer months make for a quiet office at UNBC for the Prince George Public Interest Research Group, but its learning garden, nestled between the student residences and the bioenergy plant, is in full bloom.

"This is a success story in many ways," said P.G. PIRG's executive director Sarah Boyd, who has had summer students working on the space.

Although the garden's been a fixture for awhile, starting this summer the organization is hoping use it to encourage more people to grow their own food.

Boyd said the garden is full of ripe goods like kale, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and more.

Students are selling those vegetables between 11 a.m. and

1 p.m. on Tuesdays and also bring in children's camps to learn about produce.

It's one part of the group's year-round focus on sustainable initiatives, often with efforts around waste diversion like its composting efforts or helping donate the university's excess dining hall food to local food bank St. Vincent de Paul.

"I like to look at it from the point of view with any of the projects we're doing to influence students and (the) general campus community, pulling them into the environmental movement in a number of different ways," Boyd said.

It helps, too, if the learning is directed by students.

"Those opportunities for peer interaction and I think the learning is facilitated because it's someone that is known to you," Boyd said.

Morgan Paulson has helped with that role as a summer student working at the garden.

Paulson learned a pioneer style of garden from her grandmother, which was slightly different from the raised beds and greenhouse preparation she used up at UNBC.

This year was all about getting started, she said.

"It's smaller scale on the food production but very much about learning about growing..." said Paulson.

Boyd said students are measuring what is produced so they have a baseline to compare with future, hopefully more productive, years.

Paulson said issues around food culture and access are common conversations at UNBC.

"People are becoming more and more aware of where their food is coming form. People are trying to support the smaller maybe more sustainable practices," she said. "I think it's something everybody's really interested but we have this barrier of actually getting involved in it."

And for those that won't ever get involved, that's where Laura Sapergia, owner of Home Sweet Home Grocery, comes in.

"We would much rather people just grow a big garden in their backyards. That would be better for the community but as it is not everybody has time so that's where we step in to fill that gap," said Sapergia who started the company a year ago, which sells locally grown produce by delivery or pick-up.

"I think that's what people really respond to is that we're here for the community and that's what local food is to people, it's become supporting their neighbours and buying things seasonally that grow here instead of having the same things any day."

Not everybody knows a local farmer or has time to visit weekly farmers' markets, but Sapergia said people still want that connection.

"It's like this chain of trust," she said, from the client to them through to the farmer.

"I think people are getting really interested in where their food comes from. Every single thing that we sell has a story and people like that story."

Growing local isn't as visible in Prince George, tucked in people's backyards and out of town, which Sapergia said has made it a little slower on taking up the local food movement.

"The city itself isn't in an agricultural setting, nor do we generally see food farming on a large (or small) scale," she said after highlighting urban farming initiatives in Vancouver.

But to Sapergia's mind, it's still a supported concept and she can point to her own experience for proof: in its first year, her company had exponential growth, building from start-up funding of $10,000 to $250,000.

"There is a shift happening," Sapergia said.

"We see more and more people attending and shopping at our local markets, people are talking about local foods, and I think that the success of Home Sweet Home Grocery has shown that the local food market has grown considerably over the past few years and is still growing."

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