On a recent Thursday morning, about 500 pounds of yellow and purple cauliflower filled the bed of a work truck.
Two staff members and two student interns moved through the rows, picking the day’s harvest at UC Riverside’s R’Garden. A three-hour shift yielded 90 pounds of green and purple kale, and 10 pounds of strawberries — the first strawberry harvest. A few weeks ago they cultivated broccoli.
“Everything here is free food for the students,” said Richard Zapien, R’Garden manager. Zapien oversees 8 acres of land, which includes free community garden plots. He and the three others harvest two to three times a week.
The strawberries, kale, and cauliflower to R’Pantry, the campus’ food pantry, the day’s harvest was rinsed and quickly delivered to the pantry where it could be refrigerated. Undergraduate and graduate students who remain living on campus benefit from the fresh groceries.
COVID-19 has left most of the campus closed, but the harvesting continues. Zapien and his small team were at the garden by 7 a.m. to beat the heat wearing face masks in addition to their usual work clothes. As each moved down the rows, they played their own music, occasionally chatting with each other and commenting on the crisp veggies they were pulling from the ground.
Crystal Brachetti, ’19, R’Garden’s student activity programmer, said COVID-19 has highlighted the disparity in food access here and around the globe.
“To me, it’s important to secure food for our students,” said Brachetti, the other of the garden’s two staff members. The fruit and vegetables the team harvested were planted in January, she said. “It’s a special experience to harvest something you planted.”
That is especially true when the students receive fresh staples, said Daniel Lopez Salas, R’Pantry coordinator. Since the campus closed about six weeks ago, R’Pantry has provided groceries to more than 1,200 students, including 400 first-time visitors.
Many are graduate students, student-parents, and international students, Lopez Salas said. “The partnership with the R’Garden has really helped our programming,” he said. “The majority of the students request fresh produce from us and this allows us to deliver.”
Anthony “Tony” Ruiz, one of two Green Campus Action Plan interns, said he feels enormous pride when he sees students picking R’Pantry grocery bags that include fruit or vegetables he helped harvest.
“It’s really good to know that none of it is going to waste, that it’s going to our students and community,” said Ruiz, 26, a fourth-year student majoring in ethnic studies. Also known as GCAP, the Green Campus Action Plan provides sustainability projects for undergrads at UCR.
Julia Perez, 21, is the other GCAP intern, gently moves from cauliflower to cauliflower, making sure she cuts off the perfect sized stem from the golden and purple heads, pilling them in a plastic crate she carries to the truck at the end of the row.
“We started planting before the pandemic, so now it’s time to clean up,” said Perez, a fourth-year entomology major. “It’s good work. People need to eat, and we have food.”
The team is ready to keep harvesting. In several weeks they’ll have zucchinis, tomatoes, squash, bell peppers, watermelon, and more strawberries.