Saving Food From the Dumpster: The UA's Edible Campus
With almost 8,000 trees, the UA is an arboretum inviting strolls among citrus, olive and many other trees that produce fruit. Thanks to an initiative, fruit that otherwise would go unused is made available to the community.

Ursula Basinger, UA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Dec. 8, 2014


From left: Undergraduate volunteer Michael George Bernal, undergraduate intern Tori Scaven, LEAF co-PI Melanie Lenart, and undergraduate LEAF interns Ashley Hodes and Haley Anderson show off the olives picked at the harvest on Nov. 11.
From left: Undergraduate volunteer Michael George Bernal, undergraduate intern Tori Scaven, LEAF co-PI Melanie Lenart, and undergraduate LEAF interns Ashley Hodes and Haley Anderson show off the olives picked at the harvest on Nov. 11. (Photo: Ann Posegate)

The University of Arizona enjoys a reputation for having a beautiful campus paired with a great setting and ideal weather. At a time in the spring when much of the country is still covered in snow, students can stroll to class in flip-flops, under a grove of citrus trees in fragrant bloom. The fruit these trees produce goes largely unnoticed and unused.

While the primary function of these trees — almost 8,000 of them — is to provide beauty and shade, they serve an additional purpose: Many produce food in the form of fruit such as citrus, figs and pomegranates.

Linking Edible Arizona Forests on the UA Campus is a grassroots organization that takes advantage of this readily available food. Members of UA LEAF collect and distribute edible fruit growing on campus that otherwise would go to waste. Current projects include harvesting olives for olive oil, which is now available for purchase at the UA Bookstore.

"We’re focused on harvesting fruit on trees that are already maintained as ornamentals," said Tanya Quist, director of the UA Campus Arboretum and LEAF affiliate. "It’s a great step towards promoting sustainability."

UA LEAF was started by a group of students and faculty. Melanie Lenart, UA LEAF coordinating lead and adjunct professor in the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, which is part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, helped to develop the LEAF network, a statewide effort to support and guide people interested in gleaning food from untapped resources. She teamed up with then-graduate students Angela Knerl and Alex Arizpe, both in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, who had a vision to make use of the olives that grow on campus.

A UA Green Fund grant to support graduate and undergraduate interns made these goals attainable. UA Green Fund is a sustainability initiative that uses a portion of student tuition fees to support environmental sustainability projects on campus.

"UA LEAF’s pursuit of sustainability reflects our campus legacy," Quist said, explaining that as Arizona’s only land-grant university, the UA has a long tradition of practical research and education that benefits society. Much of the early research was agricultural, with the search for arid-adapted plants that could serve as cash crops.

These efforts date back to the 1880s and 1890s, when Robert Forbes, the first head of the UA Agricultural Experiment Station, traveled throughout the Mediterranean in search of trees suitable for the Sonoran desert. He is responsible for the olive trees on the western part of campus. These trees were planted more than 120 years ago to determine varieties and methods that would provide the highest yields of crops.

In acknowledgment of the historical and aesthetic value that trees add to the campus, the UA Campus Arboretum was designated as a member of the American Public Garden Association in 2002.  The Campus Arboretum offers several campus tree tours, including one that highlights food-providing trees. 

Members of LEAF harvest olives from these historic campus trees and have them pressed into olive oil at the Queen Creek Olive Mill in Queen Creek, Arizona. This year, Nov. 11 marked the second annual olive harvest. The event drew more than 50 volunteer olive pickers.

"It went really well," according to Ryan Lee, UA LEAF graduate coordinator. "It was a beautiful day, everyone said they had fun and we got over 350 pounds of olives."

The olive oil made with this year’s harvest is available as Bear Down Olive Oil at the UA Bookstore. This project is the result of cooperation across campus involving UA facilities management, the UA BookStores, UA Student Union Dining Services, the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, and the UA marketing department. All helped UA LEAF coordinators make the olive oil a reality.

Other UA LEAF efforts have focused on fruit harvests in conjunction with the nonprofit Iskashitaa Refugee Network. "Iskashitaa" is the Somali word for working cooperatively together. Serving refugees from more than 30 countries, the network encourages cross-cultural learning and education. Iskashitaa coordinators emphasize food-based programming for refugees.

"The common denominator of food is a great entry point in building community, and it makes people feel at home," said Iskashitaa's director and founder, Barbara Eiswerth, an adjunct professor with Arid Lands Resource Sciences and a coordinator for UA LEAF. "The smells and traditions of cooking bring people together."

Many of the refugees Iskashitaa serves are from countries in northern and eastern Africa and the Middle East. These regions have hot, arid environments similar to Tucson’s. Many of the trees that the refugees know from back home grow on campus.

Dates, carob, figs and pomegranates thrive in those areas and can be found on campus. Some of these fruits are not commonly considered food by Westerners. For instance, some citrus on campus, such as Seville oranges and Calamondin limes, are too sour for the typical American palate. However, those from other cultures appreciate their intense flavor.

Iskashitaa members share their cultural knowledge in trade for harvested fruit to distribute among refugees.

"Barbara discusses how people use these plants in different cultures and helps us with harvest timing and methods," said Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in the UA's Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Arid Lands Resource Sciences. This collaboration benefits many UA students, who participate either as volunteers or paid interns.

"We’ve done some cool stuff, like the pomegranate harvest with Iskashitaa members and a gardening workshop about pruning trees and planting cuttings. It’s a fun job," said Tori Scaven, a UA LEAF intern and agriculture and life sciences major.

Added Eiswerth: "Off and on campus, we have lots to teach students about the food-based wisdom and knowledge of other cultures."

UA LEAF has the potential to broaden perspectives on cultures and environment. All are encouraged to join UA LEAF’s harvesting efforts. Events are posted on LEAF's Facebook page.

"This can be an experience that changes expectations of a desert environment and makes students feel more connected to the campus landscape," said Quist, who also is an assistant professor in practice in the UA School of Plant Sciences.

Personal fruit picking on campus, however, is discouraged because improper methods can result in long-term damage to trees.

"That’s why I feel so strongly about supporting UA LEAF," Quist said. "We’d like to facilitate harvests on campus that respect the health of the plant."

Next for UA LEAF: getting more products on the shelf.

"We’re working with Iskashitaa members to make campus fruit preserves, bay leaves, mesquite flour and other products available," Lenart said. "This will bring more awareness of the abundance of food growing on campus."

More photos from the work of UA LEAF can be found here.

Extra info

This story was researched and written by Ursula Basinger, a graduate student in the UA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, as part of the course "Communicating Science," offered through the UA College of Science.


The UA Campus Arboretum offers themed tours, including an Edible Landscapes Tour. 


If you are interested in volunteering at a UA LEAF campus harvesting event, visit UA LEAF on Facebook



Resources for the media

Melanie Lenart
Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science


Tanya Quist
UA Campus Arboretum


Barbara Eiswerth
Iskashitaa Refugee Network