By Natalie Coltman

The Nature Academy is focused on training a new generation of environmental leaders in sustainability, conservation, and ecological restoration. As part of the Nature Academy program, each intern writes a blog post and develops a project. The project provides an opportunity to take on responsibility in an area of interest, contribute to the goals of their team, and develop a skill or area of knowledge that can be added to the intern’s portfolio. The post may reflect the project or be a nature-related topic of personal interest to the intern.

It wasn’t until I started working for the University of Michigan Campus Farm (a part of Matthaei Botanical Gardens), that I became aware of what the university is doing to combat food insecurity among its students. According to a 2016 study by then-graduate student Nikki Kasper in the U-M School of Public Health and reported by Julie Halpert in Michigan Alumnus magazine, around 41% of students at Michigan struggle with food security—a surprisingly large percentage. Food security, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. By contrast, the USDA estimates that “11.8 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2017.”

Whether it’s because students can’t afford groceries or they don’t have transportation or don’t know how to effectively cook healthy food on a budget, the Maize and Blue Cupboard (MBC) is working to create a permanent solution. MBC started as a small student-run organization in 2014 and has grown into a program that will be open 20-25 hours a week by the fall of this year in the basement of Betsy Barbour, a residence hall on central campus in Ann Arbor. Their purpose is to provide students with access to healthy produce and information on how to prepare it.

East Quad garden 1
East Quad garden 2
East Quad garden 3
East Quad garden 4

The East Quad Garden is a good example of urban gardening. You don’t need a lot of space with nice soil to grow kale or tomatoes.

There are two gardens on campus, located at East Quad and the Ginsberg Center (the Campus Farm grows food in both these gardens). In the past it’s been difficult to find motivated students to care for these spaces, in part because there wasn’t a destination for the food produced from them. However, this summer I had the opportunity to work with two Dow Sustainability Fellows, Danielle Zimmel and Brooke Callaghan, to start donating all of the food grown at East Quad and Ginsberg to the Maize and Blue Cupboard. 

The two gardens produce a large variety of vegetables. There are some common vegetables like tomatoes, kale, chard, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, squash, etc. But there are also some less-common vegetables such as kohlrabi, watermelon radishes, and Mexican gherkin cucumbers that have provided a great learning experience for me and for the students. I’ve learned how these different plants grow and taste through being hands-on. It’s been an eye opening experience. 

There were times when it was a challenge to motivate myself to take care of the gardens after a long day at work. But I knew the cause was something worth striving for and I was not working alone. Another great aspect of this project was that the community could get involved in taking care of the gardens. Every Tuesday over the summer, volunteers came to the gardens from 4-6 pm to help weed, water, and harvest. It didn’t matter if they had a lot of gardening experience or none—it was food grown by students for students, which is incredible!

Watching these tiny transplants grow into large, luscious plants under the care of the community has allowed for me to see how amazing sustainable food systems are and the impact that Maize and Blue Cupboard has had in a short amount of time. My hope is that this project will continue to grow so that more students can get engaged in the community and become more aware of food insecurity, just like I did.

First harvest

This was the first harvest we donated to MBC, a very rewarding moment.

Originally from Shelby Township, Mich., Natalie Coltman is a rising junior going into chemical engineering. Her hobbies include playing soccer, cooking, hiking, and playing with her dogs. Natalie is also the head of marketing for Theta Tau, a professional engineering fraternity on campus.

Citation: Halpert, Julie. “Food for Thought.” Michigan Alumnus, 26 Feb. 2019,

Natalie Coltman