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A Garden Grows Through It

Aug 10, 2010
by Brian Thompson, '95

Flagler student Chuck Riffenburg wants to help feed the needy and teach people about going green with Hunger Initiative

He’s never been a farmer. Never been a gardener or even had any training growing plants. But that hasn’t stopped Flagler senior Chuck Riffenburg from starting three community gardens that will help St. Augustine families in need.

“This is really the first garden I’ve ever had,” said the philosophy-religion major who launched the Flagler College Hunger Initiative this past spring. “I’ve got a pretty green thumb, as it turns out.”

The gardens — one at Flagler, another at St. Augustine’s Temple Bet Yam and one at the Mission of Nombre de Dios — were part of Riffenburg’s idea to put healthy food on the plates of people who can’t afford it. But along the way, he’s also hoping to raise awareness for green initiatives, community gardens and the importance of organic and locally-grown vegetables.

Riffenburg said many people don’t realize what they’re putting in their mouths, or from where it comes.

“We’ve become so alienated from how our food is produced,” he said. “But I really believe a food revolution is taking place. People are waking up. People are realizing the importance of growing their own food.”

He says the country is in the midst of a food crisis when you consider pesticide usage, genetically engineered food, issues with obesity and even malnutrition. But he is encouraged by the number of community gardens that are popping up across the country, the increase of organic and non-genetically modified food and the number of people becoming educated about food.

Riffenburg came up with the Hunger Initiative idea after he was elected head of the Student Government Association’s newly formed Green Committee. The committee’s goal is to promote sustainability, help push green initiatives at the college and educate students about why such efforts are important.

Using connections at the Catholic Mission and the Temple’s Rabbi Mark Goldman, who also teaches at Flagler, Riffenburg began planting this past spring.

The 13 beds scattered among the three gardens are now brimming with beans, squash, zucchini, watermelons, tomatoes, sunflowers, radishes and a handful of other vegetables. His first crops were harvested this summer and given to the Betty Griffin House, a St. Augustine domestic violence shelter for women and their children.

“The food we’re growing is all going to be donated to people in need,” he said. “It’s children who are so malnourished in contemporary society, so I would rather see this go to kids who need it.”

Congregation members and Flagler students tend to the beds, and Riffenburg said everything is organic.

He became interested in where food comes from shortly after high school, thanks to a class on medicinal herbs. At Flagler, Professor Tim Johnson encouraged him to intern with CitySprout, a community garden in St. Augustine’s Lincolnville area. That experience was integral to launching the local gardens.

“Just seeing the community come together as a whole has been really exciting,” he said, noting that the response from Flagler students has also been terrific.

Riffenberg said the project is special because it is multi-layered: food is grown locally to help people in need; different faiths have come together to take part; people are becoming better educated about food; and those involved begin to understand how easy it is to start their own garden.

There has been no shortage of hiccups along the way — ants recently started eating away at his sunflowers — but he’s continued to educate himself on urban gardening and said it hasn’t been all that difficult.

“You just have to tend them and feed them properly,” he said. “It’s like having a child or a pet.”

His hope is that the Hunger Initiative will continue to grow and expand, and he’s planning to talk with other churches in the area to see if they will also get involved in the movement.

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