Campus Food Tour: Connecting Students to ASU’s Food Forest

Written by Jane Coghlan, Sustainable Food Systems Undergraduate Student

Did you know that ASU Tempe campus is a food forest? There is a diverse community of trees all throughout campus that grow edible fruit such as oranges, grapefruits, peaches, pecans, kumquats, lemons, and more.

On February 24th, 2021, students in the Gardens at ASU Club and Green Greeks Club toured through campus, led by locally famous horticulturist and ASU Arboretum program coordinator, Deborah Thirkhill, to discover some of the different foods available to them right on campus.

Most students had noticed some of the orange trees before, but did not realize they were allowed to harvest them. All of the other trees were a pleasant surprise to everyone in attendance. Who knew you could pick fresh peaches right from the tree on campus? Not only did students discover the location of the fruit-bearing trees, but a lot of them were also introduced to new foods such as tangelos, kumquats, and blood oranges (all of which can be found on campus). Tangelos are a variety of oranges that are known to be very sweet, juicy, and easy to peel. You can tell these apart from other oranges because they have a noticeable bump on top. These were a crowd favorite. Kumquats look like miniature oranges, but they are actually quite different. Instead of eating them like a regular citrus fruit, the skin of kumquats are meant to be sucked on to extract the sour sugar. You can also eat the inside like a regular citrus fruit. Thirkhill shared a story of a year when she was unable to get a flu shot, so she made a point of eating a kumquat everyday during flu season. She didn’t get sick that year and she has a suspicion that part of the reason was thanks to those magical tiny oranges boosting her immune system. The blood orange tree was the final stop on the tour and it’s fruit was new to many of the students. Unfortunately, there was only one fruit on the tree, but everyone got to see the unique deep red color of the orange, and some were lucky enough to taste it. The red color of these oranges is due to the high level of antioxidants which aid the body in fighting off free radicals. Many of the students thought it tasted quite similar to raspberries.

Deborah Thirkhill holding a fresh kumquat

Another highlight of the tour was visiting the pecan tree. According to Thirkhill, there used to be quite a few pecan trees on campus, but over time most of them got removed to make room for infrastructure. Now only one remains on the east side of the Old Main building, and it has been there for about 40 years. Students on the tour got to experience the primal task of gathering nuts, cracking them open, and retrieving the pecan seed inside to eat. Most of them had no idea how pecans grow or how they look and taste fresh off the tree. They had a rich, buttery flavor which was a delectable treat to go along with all the citrus fruits.

A student picking out the pecan after cracking it open

Everyone was amazed at the abundance of food around them, and how delicious it tasted. No one hesitated to be adventurous and try new foods. When students got the food down with the fruit picker, everyone’s eyes instantly lit up with eagerness to taste it. It was obvious that the students valued the food much more knowing that it was grown and foraged in their community. Food always seems to taste sweeter when you harvest it yourself. As Thirkhill says, “There is nothing better than eating a pea right off the vine. It’s the perfect snack.”

Gardens at ASU member, Elora Bevacqua, passing out grapefruits

These student clubs plan to continue hosting campus food tours each semester to further local food education and build a stronger connection to food among the ASU community. Gardens at ASU members even have their own garden plots on campus on the south side of the Social Sciences building. Thirkhill manages these plots for her Organic Gardening course (PPE 240), but she allows the club to garden in a few of them. The club is growing many plants such as peas, tomatoes, cilantro, artichoke, beans, and various flowers. The mission of the club is to empower students with the education, resources, and support necessary to successfully learn and apply skills to practice gardening and live more sustainably. The Green Greeks Club co-hosted this tour and brought many students in the sorority and fraternity communities. This club aims to increase a culture of sustainability within Greek life, and they strongly value educating their members on sustainable and local food systems. To learn more about these clubs or to get involved, you can visit their pages on SunDevilSync. For additional information on the Arboretum at ASU Plant Collections, click here.