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Dave Slebodnik, Student Farm Educator, Penn State Beaver

During Spring 2019, the Sustainability Institute spoke with students and staff about projects and goals that advance sustainability at their campus and throughout the state. Their insight and ideas are below.

Dave Slebodnik is helping to grow far more than food as a student farm educator at Penn State Beaver. He’s also growing leaders and a sense of community to lift up a region that lacks access to grocery stores, farmers’ markets and other healthy food providers.

Prior to joining Penn State, Slebodnik became familiar with community gardens and food systems through his work with Rivertown Food Alliance, an organization that focuses on food policy and advocacy to address food insecurity issues in and around Beaver County. Last summer, with help from a university seed grant, the Student Garden at Penn State Beaver was able to expand, and the need for someone to oversee the garden program arose.

One of Slebodnik’s first projects for the Student Garden was the installation of a high tunnel to increase food production. The tunnel, erected in August 2018, functions as an unheated greenhouse that relies on passive heating to extend the growing season. The tunnel also protects crops, like tomatoes and peppers, that are more vulnerable to disease and water issues.

Slebodnik also works to develop curriculum related to food systems and the garden. He explained that Penn State Beaver is looking into the possibility of a sustainability minor and a food systems minor.

“It’s important for students to see that for almost any major, there is a way to engage with agriculture and food systems and that there are a lot of opportunities in the agricultural industry,” Slebodnik said.

One student who took advantage of the garden’s interdisciplinary opportunities is Marisa Bufalini, a Penn State student majoring in Administration of Justice who interns in the Student Garden and has become involved with with the local nonprofit organization, Crop and Kettle. Crop and Kettle trains individuals who were previously incarcerated how to farm and teaches them other skills related to the food system, from planting crops to running a restaurant.

According to Slebodnik, there are endless possibilities for students involved with agriculture and agricultural land use, and the Student Garden is an ideal space to connect community members, students and faculty from a variety of backgrounds.
“As a land grant university, Penn State is a place of innovation with a strong focus on agriculture. That’s very important in a county such as Beaver, that is food insecure, and I think people are very thankful for that.”

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