UMass Amherst Student-Led Permaculture Committee Wins White House ‘Campus Champions of Change Challenge’

Campus team is top vote-getter in national contest

AMHERST, Mass. - Results of nationwide voting are officially in and the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s student-led Permaculture Committee has won one of the top five spots in the White House’s "Campus Champions of Change Challenge." Fifteen committee members will travel to Washington, D.C. on March 15 to accept the award, take part in a panel discussion and take a White House tour.

The UMass Amherst Permaculture Committee received 59,841 votes, the most among 15 other finalists in the challenge. In second place with 57,115 votes was a food pantry at the University of Arkansas. As a top-five finisher, the UMass Amherst team will appear on MTV Act and in an episode of mtvU’s program, "The Dean’s List."

The White House’s confirmatory note to Ryan Harb, chief sustainability coordinator for Auxiliary Services at UMass Amherst, says, "Congratulations on being selected as a ‘Champion of Change.’ Thank you for the work you do in your community." In Washington, Harb and Permaculture Committee student members will introduce their garden project to White House staffers and agency representatives. The story of their permaculture garden will also be featured on the White House website.

Reflecting on the win, Harb said, "I did think that when we started our first grass lawn transformation outside of Franklin Dining Commons that we were truly creating something special and we hoped it would be recognized and replicated at other institutions. It appears now that this might be happening faster than we imagined! We feel the voting results are truly symbolic of the campus-wide and international support that this project has behind it."

"We’re beyond excited about this opportunity to bring national attention to UMass Amherst and the amazing permaculture initiative that so many people have created together," Harb added. He led the effort last week to enlist thousands of parents, friends and other boosters to vote online before the March 3 deadline.

Over the past two years, the student committee engaged more than 1,000 fellow students plus faculty, staff and community volunteers to transform a quarter-acre of grass lawn near the Franklin Dining Commons into a diverse, edible, low-maintenance garden that supplies fruit, nuts, vegetables, greens and flowers to the Dining Commons. This year they started a second permaculture garden near Berkshire Dining Commons.

Student facilitator for the UMass Amherst Permaculture Committee, senior Meg Little of Agawam, said "Not many campuses are taking the steps we’re taking or going as far as we are. I think people look to our project with a lot of hope and they want to follow in our footsteps. People are yearning for connection and community. Our garden represents symbiosis. The plants work with each other for health; it’s a model for how people can work together that way," she adds.

Permaculture gardening is a design system that gets people working together to create ecological and edible landscapes. It is considered to be the most sustainable form of gardening and farming, and UMass Amherst is currently the only public university in the country implementing new permaculture gardens directly on campus each year and using that food in its dining commons.

Ken Toong, executive director of campus Auxiliary Services and Enterprises, said, "UMass Permaculture is a cutting-edge sustainability program and I think it will be one of the next big things on campuses nationwide. Thanks go to Ryan Harb, the Permaculture Committee and everyone else on campus who helped to make this happen. It’s a thrill."

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