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WSU graduate student applies knowledge of crop science to program that feeds people

By Carol Price Spurling

Julie Dawson takes Jesus’ message to “feed my sheep” seriously.

Julie, a doctoral student at Washington State University in Pullman, thinks about feeding others much of the time.  Her research in crop science focuses on wheat varieties suited for organic agriculture.

Julie Dawson

Julie Dawson

In her spare time, she volunteers for the Palouse Food Project (PFP), a multi-faceted partnership between the university and the region’s communities designed to alleviate hunger on the Palouse.

For Julie, the connections between her faith, her studies and her volunteerism are natural.

“Nature is a place where I feel God most strongly.  So I believe we need to learn to treat the land as a sacred gift to be used, but never abused,” she said.

“Everyone should have access to fresh, healthy food, but our food system needs a major overhaul before that will happen. I want my career to focus on developing an agricultural and food system that respects the earth and provides good food for everyone.”

The Palouse Food Project is a concrete way she is involved in these issues.

Julie grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., where she still is a member of the First Congregational Church.  She moved to Pullman in 2004 and is an associate member of Pullman’s Community Congregational United Church of Christ.

The churches are similar.  I find their social and environmental justice focus meaningful,” Julie said.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in plant science from Cornell University. After working on agricultural policy in Washington, D.C. for a year, she searched for a graduate school where she could work with an advisor and a school dedicated to “public research for the public good,” instead of working for a corporation concerned mainly about profitability for its shareholders.

“I wanted to focus on sustainable agriculture, and WSU has a good program in organic and sustainable agriculture,” she said.

Her advisor, Steve Jones, is the winter wheat breeder at WSU.  He keeps his research and wheat varieties in the public domain and has started programs in organic and perennial wheat breeding.  Julie’s research is a part of those programs.

Of all human activities on the earth, Julie said that agriculture, which provides the cereals, grains, fruits, vegetables and meats people consume throughout the day in various guises, probably has the most environmental impact. 

“Most people in the United States, however, have no idea where their food comes from and what the environmental costs of its production are,” she said.

One solution to this disconnect between people, their environment and their food, she believes, is to bring food production closer to home.

“We need to re-localize the food system to feed everyone well, while protecting the environment,” Julie said.

The Palouse Food Project is a start in this direction.

The project began in spring and summer 2003, when David Gruenewald of WSU’s College of Education taught a class to help future teachers understand how communities can support schools and how schools can give back to their communities.

He proposed having a plot at Pullman’s community gardens and taking the produce to the food bank, said Kim Freier, assistant director of WSU’s Community Service Learning Center, which helps coordinate the project.

“We connected with the Community Action Center in Pullman and, from the first year, the fresh food flew off the food bank shelves. When we saw that food bank clients were eager and willing to have that kind of food, it was encouraging.  Word spread. The Palouse Food Project started meeting regularly in fall 2003.”

The immediate goal of the project, Julie explained, is to provide fresh produce to food banks in the community from local, mostly organic, farms and gardens. The project is a complex web of interconnection and cooperation.

She manages two plots for the project at Pullman’s Koppel Farm, a former dairy now leased to the Pullman Community Gardens.

“This year, we planted lettuce, beets, carrots, onions, tomatoes, summer squash and potatoes.  Last year, we also did some broccoli, cauliflower, kale, chard and cabbage, but had trouble with flea beetles, so we avoided that plant family this year,” Julie said.

The WSU organic farm community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, in which people can pay cash in the spring for a “share” of the farm and in turn receive a box of produce each week throughout the growing season, has worked with several sponsors in order to provide four of its farm shares to the Palouse Food Project each week.

There is also some growing space at St. James Episcopal Church dedicated to the project.

A new program in Moscow, “Backyard Harvest,” under the umbrella of the non-profit Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute, picks up excess produce from home gardens and provides drop boxes for excess produce at community garden plots and delivers the food to the food banks. WSU’s Tukey Horticultural Orchard donates excess fruit to the project as well.

“There are many supporters and volunteers,” Kim said. “Some WSU classes work with it through us, the Community Service Learning Center (CSLC).  WSU’s Sustainability Club helps in the gardens.  Members of Community Congregational and other churches help.  Whitman County’s Council on Aging and Human Services’ nutrition program is finding ways to make the food available to people in rural areas.  It is a coalition of many agencies, organizations and groups.”

This summer, the PFP distributed 2,000 pounds of fresh produce to 516 households with 1,405 individuals—573 of them were youths and children under the age of 18.

Julie said the project is focused on larger goals than charity.

A greenhouse project at Sunnyside Elementary School in Pullman is starting a lunch-time gardening club to grow salads.  They plan to have the owner at a local restaurant teach them how to make salad dressings.

“The Groundworks Institute works with Sunnyside on composting. We will expand educational programs at the Community Action Center and involve more people in gardening and cooking with fresh produce,” Julie said.

“We may build raised beds for gardening at local senior and disabled housing complexes and/or start container gardening projects there.  The long-term goal is to expand to towns around the Palouse to create a sustainable regional food system that provides good local food to low-income citizens,” she said.

With a community service grant from the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, which coordinates work-study jobs, the CSLC has hired work-study interns to help. It is their only formal funding source so far, but Kim hopes they will draw larger grants in the future.

“The grant gives us a way to involve students more intimately and regularly with hunger issues,” Kim said, “and gives us more staff to implement activities.”

In the long run, the project wants locally grown foods served at WSU dining services and Pullman schools.

The project has attracted many supporters in its first few years.

“It is a multi-pronged approach to alleviate poverty and hunger from immediate charity needs to growing healthy food for people in need, to educating adults and children to bring about long-term change,” said Kim.

Julie and other volunteers have put their gardens to rest for the fall and are planting winter cover crops.  They are also planning educational activities for elementary students and food bank clients. 

They know another growing season and more opportunities to feed God’s sheep will be here before they know it.

For information, call 335-7706.