Penn State's Student Farm Expands Its Reach Through Partnerships With Community Groups

Jul 3, 2019

It's not every day you hear people get excited over tofu. But tonight’s tofu dish, served by Taproot Kitchen, comes with a side of vegetables grown at Penn State’s Student Farm. 

Taproot Kitchen is a nonprofit catering company that employs adults with autism and intellectual disabilities to cook and serve quality local food, something customers at this year’s Summer Solstice Celebration found out for themselves as they ate everything from flatbreads topped with vegetables to sweet chili tofu with a side salad. 

Taproot Kitchen is just one of several organizations the Student Farm provides with seedlings or fresh fruits and vegetables.

Leslie Pillen from the Sustainability Institute at Penn State has been working with the farm since before its first season in 2016. She says that while most of what the farm grows goes to campus dining halls, it’s important to her that students see the impact crops can have beyond the university.

“We sought out community partnerships pretty early on, because that was an opportunity for the students to engage in meaningful ways," Pillen said. 

The students grow starter plants for organizations including Taproot Kitchen, which Sharon Schafer co-founded as a solution to a problem she and other parents were having.

“As parents of children with intellectual disabilities who were graduating from high school without a career path, and with a very real likelihood of kind of fading into the background in society, we wanted them to have a chance to engage, and to continue to seek jobs and career paths," Schafer said.

Schafer says Taproot’s partnership with the Student Farm is beneficial for employees and volunteers at both places. She especially likes working with the Penn State students at the farm.

“I love students; students are passionate. We have found more than anybody that they're used to being with people with intellectual disabilities, because they've been included in schools with them," Schafer said. "That's the generation -- actually, it's the first generation that has that experience.”

Mikaela Axman is a senior at Penn State and an intern at the Student Farm this summer. She’s in charge of organizing volunteers to work at Taproot’s garden.

“They’ll have work nights on Thursday nights where different volunteers from Life Link PSU will come, and I’ll kind of show them what needs to be done in the garden that day," Axman said. 

Keeping with the mission of Taproot Kitchen, Life Link is an organization that gives special-needs students between the ages of 18 and 21 the opportunity to participate in different community events.

Pillen says the Student Farm has also partnered with the Community Harvest Project, which provides produce to local food banks.

“Oftentimes such groups have shelf-stable type box or canned goods, but often lack access to fresh items,” Pillen said.

Pillen says the Student Farm aims to do even more with the project this year.

“Last year was our real first season with the Community Harvest Project," Pillen said. "We distributed 20,000 pounds of produce in that first year. So that was really exciting. And we’re hoping that we can double it to 40,000 pounds this year.”

Other partnerships the Student Farm has include Meals on Wheels and the Homegrown Project through Centre County Master Gardeners, another group that provides fresh produce to area food banks.