This last year, the University of Northern Iowa saw the development and realization of a fantastic opportunity for its students: the Panther Plot.
A fresh vegetable and produce garden located on campus, the Panther Plot is organized and maintained by students of all disciplines and majors. However, there’s more to the Panther Plot than meets the eye. Beyond simply growing and harvesting the produce, the students who run the Panther Plot are interested first and foremost in giving back to the community. Portions each harvest are donated to several places, including the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and the local chapter of the Iowa FoodCorps. Produce is also sold twice a week outside Maucker Union at what the students are calling the Panther Plot Produce Stand.
The Panther Plot ultimately has its origins in a service-learning class offered at UNI during the 2012-2013 academic year. Nine students worked together to research an issue, design a project, and then implement that project. What they discovered was that even students here in Iowa, the “agricultural heart of the world,” did not know where their food was coming from. Working directly with key partners and stakeholders at UNI and in the larger community, the class began to design the garden that would eventually become the Panther Plot. Managing to work through the necessary bureaucracy that accompanies such an ambitious project, the students finally broke ground on the new student-run garden in Spring 2013 at a special ceremony celebrating their success.
Why is the Panther Plot such a great opportunity for students? First, it offers students of all grades, majors, disciplines, and interests the opportunity to learn something fundamental about the systems that produce the food we consume, and about the benefits of eating both locally grown and healthy food. Second, the Panther Plot works to bring together a vast number of different departments and organizations at UNI, including but not limited to the Office of the President and Provost, the Center for Environmental and Energy Education, the Office of Sustainability, Facilities Services, Dining Services, the Office of Student Affairs, and the Department of Biology. Third, beyond the connections that it fosters within UNI, the Panther Plot also provides an excellent opportunity for outreach within the wider Cedar Falls/Waterloo community. Working with organizations such as the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and the Iowa FoodCorps, as well as local businesses such as Lowe’s Home Improvement, Meyer’s Nursery, Tractor Supply Company, and Blain’s Farm and Fleet, the Panther Plot promises to make an impact not only at UNI, but in Black Hawk county in general.