By Kenneth J. Souza
EASTON, Mass. — Thanks to a $5,000 grant from Project Bread, The Farm at Stonehill College is furthering its mission of providing neighbors in the Brockton area with fresh, affordable produce as part of the college’s mobile market effort.
“A partnership with Project Bread is exciting because we share their vision of implementing both immediate and long-term solutions to food access in Massachusetts,” said Bridget Meigs, farm manager and environmental science instructor at Stonehill College. “Together, we are taking steps to have a significant impact on food accessibility and personal empowerment for a diverse community of people seeking to make healthier choices for themselves and their families.”
“At Project Bread, we support community initiatives that ensure food security,” added Ellen Parker, executive director at Project Bread. “The Stonehill Farm and their new mobile market empower the change we need in our food system. Project Bread focuses on innovation, health and dignity, and we look beyond stopgaps and temporary help to evolve and maintain effective, sustainable, long-term solutions.”
Beginning in September, organic produce grown at The Farm on Stonehill’s campus was sold at or below market cost in a parking lot currently shared by The Family Center at Community Connections of Brockton and the Trinity Baptist Church, located at 1367 Main Street in Brockton.
“We grow things in Easton but we pretty much donate everything to food providers in the Brockton area,” Meigs said. “The church offered us the opportunity to use its giant parking lot, which is right on Main Street in Brockton, across from a high-rise apartment building where a large elderly population lives. It’s been a really nice location and I hope we’ll do better at getting the word out about it and people will be able to come (in the spring).”
The first-ever mobile market officially commenced on September 23 and was held every Wednesday afternoon through October.
The Farm’s mobile market gives residents who do not live near grocery stores access to healthy eating options, and shares information about other efforts to increase wellness in the community. The mobile market does this by partnering with other organizations to offer cooking demonstrations, recipes, and nutritional information to visitors.
While Meigs said The Farm project has been going since 2010, this is the first year they’ve attempted to sell the produce at a “farmer’s market” type location.
“I think the big push for it was another way to improve access,” she said. “We wanted to try it this fall to see if it was something people had a taste for and to see how popular it would be, and it seems like we’ve had a very positive and warm reception and we’re looking forward to the spring where at that point we will have invested in more things like a cute, little tent and banners and flags so people can see the location and have that experience of buying their vegetables at a local market. We’re planning to have a bigger launch in the spring.”
The creation of the mobile market extends The Farm at Stonehill’s commitment to addressing what is known as “food desert” conditions in parts of Brockton.
A “food desert” is defined as a geographic area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile.
“It’s very important that everyone eat healthy, especially here where there’s a ‘food desert’ in Brockton,” said sophomore Alana Cotto, who was volunteering at a recent mobile market. “It’s awesome to have this community aspect of our class that we’re able to take the food that we produce and take it directly to the people who otherwise couldn’t get fresh produce.”
“It’s awesome to be able to experience this first-hand,” agreed fellow sophomore Erin Colford. “I’ve worked at The Farm a few times — it’s part of the requirements for our class — and I helped picked some of the vegetables being sold here today.”
Established in 2010, The Farm uses one-and-a-half acres on Route 138 to grow produce and flowers for the mobile market and for its four community partners: My Brother’s Keeper, the Easton Food Pantry, The Table at Father Bill’s and MainSpring, and the David John Louison Center of the Old Colony YMCA in Brockton.
Since its inception, The Farm at Stonehill has donated more than 51,000 pounds of fresh organic produce to those four community partners. The Farm grows more than 90 different varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers, and contains several plots where students actively research sustainable agricultural practices such as permaculture and the application of soil amendments like biochar.
“We work really closely with other farms in the area on production and disease management issues and we have relationships with other farms to make sure we’re all on the same page with best practices for growing crops,” Meigs said. “We are not a certified organic farm, but we practice organic farming techniques — we don’t use any pesticides or herbicides or chemical fertilizers. We only use organic compost to grow our vegetables.”
Meigs said the mobile market now provides students with a way to directly interact with the people who are benefitting from the fruits of their labor.
“When you’re eating organic food and you come to a small market like this, you have the opportunity to talk to the farmers about how it’s grown, who grew it, and what were the labor practices (at the farm),” she said. “We try to talk about that (social aspect of farming) to the students, too.”
Stonehill staff member Tim Watts considers The Farm and its new mobile market effort “simple and rewarding.”
“When The Farm took off a few years ago, I took a liking to it,” Watts said. “I grew up around farms and I just enjoy doing it. It’s such a simple, wholesome thing to do. You try to take a little bit of your time to give back here and there, and this was a perfect fit for me.”
A full-time custodian at Stonehill, Watts also works to help cut the grass, rake the leaves and harvest the crops at The Farm.
“There are lots of volunteers at The Farm,” added Meigs. “If you came on any given afternoon, there might be 50 students there working. I’m the only paid person on this project and I try to involve as many students as I can to get the word out and to help me sell the product at the market.”
While other schools have similar farming initiatives, Meigs said Stonehill’s model is different in that it falls under the purview of the college’s mission division.
“I know a lot of them are under environmental science or agriculture, so I think it’s pretty unique to have it come under the mission division,” she said. “I got involved because the mission division of the college wanted to start a farm to teach about food desert conditions in Brockton, specifically. So I was hired to be that person to start The Farm and to then donate every unit we grow to four key partners in the community that address hunger. We added the mobile market as another way to access those vegetables and sell them to people at affordable prices.”
Now, with Project Bread’s support, The Farm hopes to add an additional acre of growing space that will harvest more produce for the mobile market.
“There is some other land around there and we’re hoping to expand it at some point in the future,” Watts said. “Especially now that we’re doing the mobile market, it does require a good deal of crops to distribute to the folks in the area.”
Meigs said the plan for next year is to start the weekly mobile market in the spring — probably in mid-May.
“One of the students’ assignments this year is looking at aspects of sales and logistics to make it better for next spring,” she said. “We’re going to put together some nice, colorful flyers and handouts to give to people about the mobile market and healthy eating options.
“We’re also hoping to add a location and another day — somewhere in the northern part of the city — a place that doesn’t have access to great, affordable vegetables. Right now we accept credit cards, cash or checks and we’re also hoping by spring to be able to accept EBT cards and SNAP benefits, too.”
For Colford, the experience has been educational and rewarding.
“I’ve always been interested in soil and growing plants and just to see what we can produce and how we can produce it more efficiently,” she said. “I’m also involved in campus ministry, so being able to help people have access to healthy food options is awesome.”
Meigs said The Farm and weekly mobile market have also helped to “bring together students, faculty and staff working on one common project.”