Food garden at UP Mamelodi Campus feeds – and trains – local community

Posted on April 19, 2023

A food garden at the University of Pretoria (UP) Mamelodi Campus run by staff and student volunteers is not only helping to feed the community but also providing training to Mamelodi residents on how to grow their own vegetables.

All produce grown in the 20 m by 20 m plot near the bus stop on the Mamelodi Campus is distributed for free among participants, students, volunteers, and other beneficiaries such as local early childhood development centres and children’s homes. 

“We will hopefully be harvesting Swiss chard and Chinese spinach by April,” says project leader Debbie Mdlongwa of the Mamelodi Business Hub, an initiative through which UP provides entrepreneurial and business development services to Mamelodi residents. The garden’s previous planting cycles have produced everything from spinach, bell peppers, beetroot, and spring onions, to Brussels sprouts and coriander.

Nothing goes to waste in the Mamelodi food garden, with produce being distributed for free among participants, students, volunteers, and other beneficiaries such as local early childhood development centres and children’s homes.  The garden has produced a variety of produce, from Swiss chard and spinach to bell peppers, beetroot, spring onions and Brussels sprouts.

“We share the produce freely, as we do not want anything to go to waste,” says Salomé Pretorius, who teaches business management to first-year students on the Mamelodi Campus. “We realise that many people do not have enough food to eat.”

Pretorius initiated the garden project in 2019 as an extension of her subject matter. It was formally launched with a planting ceremony involving more than 300 participants. “In the module, we focus a lot on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, of which the attainment of food security is one. By starting the garden among our students, we could link a community engagement and service-learning component to the subject, and add a practical component to what the students learn about the fundamental principles of the SDGs. It taught them that, through collaboration, they can make small changes one at a time, and so improve the lives of others.”

The practical part of the module included an opportunity for the students to reach out to teachers and pupils at early childhood development (ECD) centres and introduce them to food gardening. The ECD centres also received fresh produce for their feeding schemes. “The project has also allowed students from suburban areas to learn more about farming and develop a real feel for what it’s like to live in low-resourced communities,” Pretorius says.

“The practical experience has made some students realise that many people simply do not have enough food to eat,” says Carto Abrams-Swarts of UP’s Department of Business Management and the Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute.

The project’s leaders are hopeful that UP’s Business Management first-year students will also be able to return to the garden this year, for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“There’s something peaceful and therapeutic about working in the garden,” says Robyn Goss, a volunteer at the Mamelodi Business Hub.

The team that kept the garden going throughout the pandemic is heartened by the sense of community and ownership from students and staff. “We’ve even been helped by some of the bus drivers who, during the day, wait to shuttle students between the Hatfield and Mamelodi campuses. They started helping to water the garden on their own,” Mdlongwa says. “To me, the garden nicely illustrates the purpose of a community project, and how it can bring people together.”

Mdlongwa first became involved in the garden in 2021, when she started a 22-month plant-production leadership through the AgriSETA programme run on campus. “The project is close to our hearts, and we are passionate about it,” she says.

Between 2022 and 2023 she was assisted by 12 students who volunteered their time to work in the garden. In the process, she says, they learned valuable lessons on preparing the soil and planting and starting small food gardens in their own backyards using tyres and pallets. “One of the groups has earmarked a children’s home in Mamelodi to which they want to donate some of the spinach we are growing.”

Last year, as part of Nelson Mandela Day celebrations, children from four ECD schools were invited to visit the garden. “We taught them about the importance of plants, and they could take spinach home to their parents,” Mdlongwa says.

With more and more residents learning about small-scale farming via the garden and its volunteers, there’s no telling how far this project’s growth potential stretches!

* For more information, and to support the garden, contact Carto Abrams-Swarts at [email protected].

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