By Ed Brennen
Every Wednesday this summer, right around lunchtime, blue plastic bins are delivered to the desks of 20 lucky members of the university community. Inside the bins are an assortment of organic vegetables and herbs — summer squash, zucchini, scallions, green beans, carrots and kale — all harvested earlier that morning from urban farms around the city.
As the aroma of fresh sage, rosemary and basil wafts across office cubicles, co-workers gather around to check out their colleague’s weekly bounty.
“Everyone in the office comes by to take a look. They love to see what’s inside,” says Solution Center Specialist Stacey Felix, one of the 20 staff, faculty and students who volunteered to participate in the university’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) pilot program this summer.
“It’s great,” Felix says. “There’s things I’ve never used before, so I’ll jump on Pinterest when I get home and try different recipes.”
The 20-week program, running from May to October, is a joint initiative between the Office of Sustainability, the Center for Public Opinion and the Lowell-based urban farming venture Mill City Grows. It’s funded by a $7,500 Sustainability Encouragement & Enrichment Development (S.E.E.D.) Fund grant and $7,500 in matching funds from the Office of Sustainability.
The goal of the pilot program, according to Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony, is twofold: to set the table for a more formal CSA program at UML starting next summer, and also to provide opportunities for funded research in the areas of urban and community-supported agriculture and sustainable food systems.
“This gives us the ability to design and implement a self-sustaining CSA program at UMass Lowell that supports increased access to healthy, organic produce,” O’Mahony says. “As part of an urban university, our focus from day one has been on urban sustainability issues.”
In exchange for their free midweek deliveries of fresh veggies and herbs, the 20 volunteers agree to complete weekly online surveys, conducted by the Center for Public Opinion, on what they like (and don’t like) in the bins and how the program impacts their dietary habits.
The survey information is being used in a research project led by John Cluverius, associate director of the Center for Public Opinion and an assistant professor of political science, and Sabrina Noel, a member of the Center for Population Health and an assistant professor in biomedical and nutritional sciences. They hope to learn about the impact of the CSA on participants’ overall health, and also to develop best practices for establishing and managing a university-based CSA.
“While there are other universities that are organizing CSAs for members of their community, this would be the only one organized around urban agriculture,” Cluverius says. “This is an incredible opportunity to fuse research and service, while also benefiting the university community.”
Most of the produce used in the pilot program comes from Mill City Grows’ 4-acre farm located off Pawtucket Boulevard, about two miles west of campus. Many of those crops started as seedlings last spring in the university’s new Urban Agriculture Greenhouse.
“That’s one of the great benefits of having the greenhouse — it allows Mill City Grows to start the growing season earlier and extend it further into the fall,” says O’Mahony, who adds that produce from the greenhouse, such as tomatoes, will be included in the bins in coming weeks.
The pilot program participants (including Chancellor Jacquie Moloney) get their bins of produce delivered directly to their office by student employees from the Office of Sustainability. The logistics will change next year, however, as organizers hope to see between 50 to 100 students, faculty and staff pay to take part in the formal CSA program. Participants would pick up their produce each week at a specific location on campus (while returning their reusable bin from the previous week).
Since some people may not know Swiss chard from Swiss cheese, program organizers are including laminated recipe cards in the bins each week. They also plan to create a web page with suggested recipes.
Jimmy Akinlawon, a graduate research assistant pursuing his master’s degree in public health, admits he didn’t know much about cooking vegetables before taking part in the pilot program. Now, he’s hooked.
“There was a vegetable soup I made that was so wonderful. I was surprised,” says Akinlawon, who notes that the traditional dishes of his native country, Nigeria, don’t include a lot of veggies. “Now, I’m really seeing why you should mix more vegetables with your diet.”
Michelly Santos, who works as a project research assistant with Noel in the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences, is another satisfied CSA customer. She says the program is a great way to inform students about the university’s greenhouse and its partnership with Mill City Grows. And it also gives her something to look forward to every Wednesday afternoon.
“I love when the bins arrive. Everything looks amazing,” says Santos, who earned her master of public health from the university in May after getting her undergraduate degree in exercise physiology in 2016. “I can’t wait to go home and start cooking.”