Beginning in October 2016, this new and innovative program and partnership fosters food justice in Lowell by improving physical health, economic independence and environmental sustainability through increased access to land, locally-grown food and education.
This community partnership is unique in that it provides services to both the university and also to residents of the City of Lowell in an innovative and engaging setting. Community engagement focused on food access and justice is particularly important in Lowell. The majority of neighborhoods in the city are classified as low income with low food access by the United States Department of Agriculture.
UMass Lowell's Office of Sustainability worked directly with Mill City Grows to secure over $150,000 in grant funding to initially support this project. Combined with significant investment from the university, we have developed a program that allows for continuous sustainability innovation in urban agriculture.
The university has developed two on-campus sites in support of its Urban Agriculture Program. The first, is a 1,800-square-foot urban agriculture greenhouse and surrounding acre of land on the university's East Campus. In addition to being a full scale agricultural production site, this location also doubles as a testing ground where university researchers and students can work with community members to develop new and efficient ways to grow and develop organic and sustainable produce.
The greenhouse structure and surrounding site were designed, and are operated, with a strong focus on sustainability. Faculty and students from UMass Lowell's Energy Engineering program are conducting research at the greenhouse with a focus on the food/water/energy nexus. The structure itself is powered off-grid, with a concentration on passive solar energy. Produce is grown on a seasonal and regionally specific schedule with the associated energy and water use researched and analyzed. Soil used on the site comes from compost generated from UMass Lowell's award winning food waste diversion program which is instituted at each of our dining facilities. As the site is located within the 100ft buffer of the Merrimack River, innovative rain and storm water capture techniques have been employed. Collectively, these approaches, which mirror larger capital projects at the university, result in considerable environmental benefit. They also provide significant economic savings to UMass Lowell through a reduction in utility costs.
Twenty percent of the produce grown at the UMass Lowell site is donated back to community members, including the UMass Lowell student food pantry. In addition, produce grown at the site is available through the Massachusetts Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) which matches Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients' purchases of local fruits and vegetables in order to drive healthier and more environmentally sustainable consumption methods in low-income communities.
UMass Lowell also developed a community garden in the Acre neighborhood of Lowell, traditionally one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in Massachusetts. This community garden was established in 2017 on a parcel of university owned land that buffers our student hub, University Crossing, and the Acre neighborhood.
Access to the garden is provided on a 50/50 split between the Lowell community and university students and staff to ensure equal access and engagement at the facility. This location provides a means to grow healthy, local, and culturally appropriate food for all residents regardless of race/ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.
Effective community engagement is intrinsic to the pursuit of urban sustainability. We believe our Urban Agriculture Program with Mill City Grows is both unique and innovative. By combing the university's facilities & academic expertise with a local organization that is focused on food access and justice, we are affecting real world change and sustainability in a diverse and evolving city. Our partnership is relatable and transferable to ACUI members committed to similar sustainability goals in the urban setting.