Texas college turns football field into farm

By Linda Stewart Ball
Associated Press / April 30, 2011

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DALLAS—In Texas, where football fields are hallowed ground, the state's oldest historically black college is planting the seeds for community change between its fading goalposts.

Yellow and purple onions, beans and strawberries are sprouting from rows of dark, rich earth where visiting teams once clashed with the Paul Quinn College Tigers.

The idea of turning the once-weedy football field into a student-run, 2-acre urban farm has given the struggling college an unlikely bond with Yale University, and has grown into a project that experts say feeds a growing interest among U.S. students about their food sources.

"We loved the irony of it, from football field to farm," said Amy Chen, project manager for PepsiCo's Food for Good initiative, which is partnering with Paul Quinn and providing some business and agricultural expertise. "Gridiron to garden, it's a little sacrilegious in Texas."

In a nod to the state's favorite sport, some of the yield is being sold to the company that runs concessions at Cowboys Stadium, the billion-dollar home of the Dallas Cowboys. But an equal amount of Paul Quinn's produce is being given to nonprofit groups that feed the hungry -- a form of tithe from the 139-year-old college that is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

"This is not about turning kids into farmers," Paul Quinn President Michael Sorrell said recently while standing in the just-planted field, the muffled sound of cars zooming past on a nearby freeway. "We want to teach our students to solve problems that face our community."

As Sorrell saw it, the problem was grocers telling him they didn't want to invest in the underserved southern Dallas neighborhood where Paul Quinn is located. Angered by the snub, Sorrell came up with the idea for an urban school farm and contacted The Sustainable Food Project at Yale, which has operated a near-acre, mini-campus farm since 2003.

Last summer, Yale gave Paul Quinn a crash course on organic agriculture and running educational programs that emphasize the importance of healthy food grown in an environmentally friendly way. Now the school of about 200 students, which lost most of its enrollment during an ongoing accreditation dispute, has a special relationship with the Yale program that one of its organizers says gets about 10 inquiries a week from other schools interesting in starting similar programs.

Paul Quinn is one of the few Yale has mentored.

"They've got such a great story," said Jacqueline Lewin, outreach coordinator for the Yale project.

As a way of thanking Yale, some Paul Quinn students recently traveled to New Haven, Conn., to help restore community gardens in underserved neighborhoods there, said Elizabeth Wattley, Paul Quinn's service learning director, which oversees the farm.

Eventually, the college wants to open its own grocery store, said Sorrell, who cut the $600,000-a-year football program not long after he was named president in 2007. By fall, the school hopes to create a farmers market on its outdoor recreational basketball courts along the road leading into the campus.

Among the roughly 2,200 pounds of fruits and vegetables produced in the Food for Good Farm program's first two growing seasons, some went to the school's cafeteria and some to area restaurants and food service companies, Wattley said. About 300 pounds -- from arugula and baby romaine to rosemary and sage -- went to Legends Hospitality Management, the concessions provider at Cowboys Stadium.

Orazio LaManna, the lead chef for the stadium, said about 10 members of his staff helped plant tomatoes at Paul Quinn during spring break.

"Everything in this garden we'll utilize," LaManna said, explaining that the field will supply about 10 percent of their produce needs.

Parts of the campus farm are set aside for research and hands-on use in science courses. Paul Quinn students are also required to take a course in social entrepreneurship, and Sorrell wants them to understand the importance of healthy eating.

The message wasn't lost on 21-year-old biology major Lamar Nicholas of New Orleans. He was one of about 10 Paul Quinn students who volunteered in New Haven, and he said the farm has introduced him to several new foods, including squash and arugula.

"I still eat meat but I do eat more greens now," said Nicholas, the assistant farm manager.

Chen said she's watched student confidence soar on the campus farm as students become experts on herbs, experiment with more exotic vegetables and extol the benefits of such foods to others.

"They see themselves as change agents and that's having a much broader impact than the farm itself," Chen said.