The University of Montana dining garden is trying to make a comeback after its space was demolished for a new dining hall.
The garden, situated near the Lommasson Center, previously produced fresh produce and took care of the Food Zoo ducks.
UM President Seth Bodnar told the student government that the new dining hall will open for the fall 2024 semester. However, UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said Bodnar would not discuss the garden’s comeback until the new dining hall is up and running, despite calls to open the new garden sooner.
The garden’s advocates have identified a plot near the Gilkey Executive Education Building that would be about 128 feet from east-to-west and about 78 feet from north-tosouth, but that is not currently included in the University’s campus infrastructure plan.
The admissions office, located in Gilkey, has helped with the efforts to get grant monies and reinvent the on-campus garden, according to one source from UM Catering.
“We feel like it’s an important part of the student experience to have the ability to see the food being grown that they’re going to eat later,” said the Assistant Director of UM Catering and Sustainability, Colton Buford. “And since then, we have been looking for a place on campus to reclaim our garden. The space adjacent to the Gilkey building has an open patch of grass at the north suitable for our garden.”
Buford said the University has concerns about the aesthetics of having a garden on campus, as the garden turns lifeless in winter. Leaving a dirt bed with overgrown weeds that may look unsightly. Additionally, the previous location of the garden was hidden from the main entrance, whereas the proposed new spot is one of the first things people would notice coming to the campus.
With that concern in mind, the garden planners aim for the new plot to be visually appealing, fitting the look of the campus with walking paths, benches and picnic tables. They also plan to include signage so people can learn about everything being grown.
“It will be a visual for people from growing to consuming,” Buford added.
The garden officials applied for a $100,000 grant from the University’s Flagship Fund in February, and they’re waiting to hear back sometime in April.
The University has another garden on South Avenue, wedged between the University Village apartments and the Iron Griz. It’s where the Food Zoo ducks live. The food grown there is directly supplied to the Food Zoo, but without the garden on campus, the Food Zoo outsources more of its produce.
Garden advocates conducted a survey with the Montana Public Interest Research Group to show students’ support while applying for funding for the new plot.
“We asked questions like if the students are concerned about UM’s sustainability efforts, whether they like fresh produce or whether a garden would be a persuasion factor to choose UM for their higher education,” said Talia Burk, the vice chair on MontPIRG’s board.
MontPIRG collected around 500 responses and most of them favored bringing back the garden, according to Buford. The Associated Students of the University of Montana also backed a proposal to build the garden with UM’s Flagship Fund monies at a recent meeting.
But Kuntz said the University has no plan to bring back the garden right now.
“The garden certainly won’t be back until the new dining hall construction is complete,” he said.
Kuntz said UM hopes to bring the garden back, but the University is “a few months away” from serious discussions about possible options for location. According to Kuntz, before finalizing a location, the University wants to consider the ability for people to access the surrounding buildings quickly.
“It’s the University’s goal to be as sustainable as possible,” Kuntz added. “For some reason, if there is not enough space in the footprint of the new garden, we’ll start looking for alternatives around the campus.”
Buford disagreed, saying initiating a garden space ahead of the new dining center opening is a feasible idea because the fresh produce would be used for feeding the students as soon as the new hall opens.
“Students are saying they want the garden space now,” Buford said. “That’s pushing something the students want to the back burner, and I don’t think that’s best for the students’ recruitment, retention and experience.”