It can feel at times like the concept of sustainability has been reduced to a buzzword or, at best, a vague concept devoid of tangible action. That is not the case at Cal State San Marcos, where a culture of actionable sustainability has been built into every aspect of the student experience.  

“Sustainability is not only focused on the environment; sustainability is the combination of the environment, the people, and the economy,” said A.S. I. Representative for Sustainability, Kimberly Anderson. “Sustainability depends on the global citizenship of humans everywhere on this planet, with preservation and innovation being key to making a difference.”

As part of the Sustainability Master Plan, CSUSM currently offers 70 courses that integrate sustainability into their curriculum. The campus has received four Campus As Living Lab grants, totaling $88,000. These grants allow professors to focus on applying concepts learned in class to campus initiatives, such as Dr. Catalin Ratiu’s course, Business Sustainability, in which students focus on the foundations of building a sustainable company, applying their ideas to the university at large.

“The Campus As Living Lab grant I applied for and received focuses on applying concepts learned in class to campus initiatives,” said Ratiu. “Many students view food as a core sustainability issue, not only because they can immediately relate to it, but also because the food industry is a significant part of the economy, at nearly $1.5 trillion.”

Last year in class, students proposed a farmers market, which is currently in the preliminary stages of development, as well compostable silverware, green roofs, and water conservation efforts. By 2020, CSUSM plans to spend 20% of their total food budget on local, sustainable food purchases, with students at the helm of the process.

The Sustainable Food Project garden was started by Professor Greig Guthey in 2012 as a small pilot project to see if a group of CSUSM students could turn an unused road bed, compacted 95%, into a class-based community garden.

“The garden is changing all the time, it has made teaching outside a big adventure,” laughs Guthey. “My whole thing is about transformative education, to have an impact on a student’s life, it’s been transformative for me as well.”

From three student-built raised beds, the garden has now expanded to a 5000 square foot space. Utilizing coffee grounds and pre-consumer scraps for compost (700 pounds sourced weekly on campus!), the garden has become a lens through which to explore the world.  

“The garden means different things to different students. For some of us, it's a space to practice food sovereignty, for others it may be a place to seek solace from the hustle and bustle of student life,” said Garden Club President Nikkole Adams. “Above all, it’s about crossing social barriers and providing space to those who may not otherwise have space to grow food.”

With the goal of zero waste by 2025, CSUSM already diverts 75-80% of waste from landfill, with the living garden assisting in this goal.

“It’s one thing to learn about the food system in a book, and it’s another to learn about the food system by planting seedlings in the rain with your fellow classmates,” said Professor Gabriel Valle, who teaches the Environmental Studies Senior Capstone class.

Since 2012, the garden has expanded to one of the most transformative models for education on campus, a combination of applied growing and experiential learning. Students have become empowered to take the lead and share their knowledge with fellow “Cougars.”

“Many students don’t have the opportunity to learn out in nature…it’s very powerful for them,” said Juliana Goodlaw-Morris, CSUSM Sustainability Manager. “It’s so important when students connect not only to a sense of place, but also to their relationship with this planet.”

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