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What if you could implement just one program that would decrease obesity, mitigate climate change, feed the hungry, lessen crime, provide jobs and job training, boost the local economy, reduce homelessness, and conserve natural resources?
Sound too good to be true? Susan Jezsik Varlamoff ’71 is using urban gardening to address all of these needs. “We are seeing the potential that urban agriculture has to transform the city, neighborhood by neighborhood,” said Varlamoff.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated multi-faceted, surprising benefits of planting an ordinary vegetable patch in the city. “Once you get the community garden in, people are occupied, and the crime goes away because there are so many more eyes and ears on the street,” Varlamoff said. “And you’re employing people.”
As director of the Office of Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Varlamoff secures funding, organizes faculty, promotes research, and coordinates environmental initiatives that in turn benefit the local economy, individuals’ health, and communities.
To support economic growth, she pulled together funding to study the value of local food, and researchers found that if every family in Georgia bought just $10 of local food a week, they would pump $1.9 billion annually into the state’s struggling economy. To encourage healthy living in the second most obese state in the country, Varlamoff has hired a colleague to develop a school garden resource center that provides educational materials to teach Georgia’s school children basic gardening skills that will provide access to fresh produce. And to care for communities with high homeless populations, she worked with the largest homeless shelter in Atlanta to establish a vegetable garden nearby.
Creating a garden not only helped feed the 900 residents; it also brought natural beauty into their world of cinder block walls and abandoned lots, and it occupied them with fruitful work. “There’s really no green around, which is not good for all these men that have fought with drugs and alcohol and jail,” Varlamoff said. “We train the men in [farming], and they are providing the food for their kitchen.”
She added, “If they are interested, we train them to work in the landscape industry.” Varlamoff’s colleague at the shelter says that re-entry into the workforce and society is much faster for these men. “They’ve done studies on horticultural therapy and what it does to people,” she adds, “and it’s got a calming effect on these men who have suffered.” Her experience confirms this—she jokes that her own garden “looks great when I’m having a tough time!”
Varlamoff is working with the mayor of Atlanta to bring the myriad benefits of farming to the whole city. Nearly half of Atlanta is a “food desert,” an area where convenience stores are more readily available than grocery stores. Mayor Kasim Reed stated in his Power to Change sustainability plan that he wants to put a source of fresh food within 10 minutes of every Atlantan, starting with establishing a farm across from the city hall. He asked Varlamoff’s Office of Environmental Sciences to create a sustainability plan, suggest ways to enrich the soil, and develop the city hall farm into a research and education center.
For all these initiatives and many more that she has worked on, Varlamoff won a University of Georgia Sustainability Award last year. Her nominators gave her high praise: “Susan Varlamoff is a pillar in the sustainability movement on campus and throughout the state of Georgia from her efforts to promote water conservation, local foods and renewable energy to envisioning a socially responsible organic farm in the heart of Atlanta and buoying the UGA Climate and Society Initiative. Susan’s work remains characterized by an impeccable grace and style.”
Earning a bachelor’s degree in biology at Immaculata helped plant seeds in Varlamoff that inspired her to do this kind of work. Catholic education provides “a culture of using your work to give back to society,” Varlamoff said. “If we are really Catholic women, we are stewards of the earth.”
Varlamoff has a holistic view of what this stewardship means. “To live sustainably really is to look at all aspects of your life,” she said, mentioning the cars people buy, the waste they generate, and the amount of water and energy they use. “It’s really an accumulation of all the small things you do that allows you to live sustainably.”
Slowly, Varlamoff thinks, people are becoming more aware of their need to make these small changes. “We’re coming to realize, with this economic crunch, that really, more is not necessarily better. It’s not sustainable.” Voicing the urgency she feels, she continued, “I have a passion about this, because our survival’s on the line … and people don’t realize it.”
She looks at sustainability as a three-legged stool. “The three legs stand for economy, environment and society. In making balanced decisions we must consider each of these factors … Coal-burning power plants provide society with needed electricity and make big money for investors but are filling the atmosphere with CO2, which contributes to greenhouse gases. Essentially, we must live on the interest of nature’s capital and not the principle if future generations are to have the quality of life we enjoy today.” It is possible, she added, “to thrive with a limited amount of resources [and] to live within our means.”