Sustaining Community Health

Sustaining Community Health

This week Tove Olaussen Freeman is guest blogging for HBI. Tove Olaussen Freeman graduated from Brandeis University in May 2016, with a major in Health: Science, Society, and Policy.

This year I took a capstone course on the effects of neighborhoods on health with Professor Sara Shostak at Brandeis University. We spent the semester studying how access to healthy food, population demographics, public perception, and housing policies can affect health in neighborhoods. As part of a partnership with the Urban Farming Institute (UFI  and in hopes of making some small contribution to the revitalization of the historic Fowler Clark Epstein Farm we focused particularly on the neighborhood of Mattapan. The Fowler Clark Epstein Farm is being preserved and redeveloped by Historic Boston Incorporated (HBI) in partnership with UFI and the Trust for Public Land to become the hub for urban farming in Boston and the greater region.

Our efforts were focused first, on learning about the neighborhood- where we conducted oral history interviews with former residents and current residents. Our interviews with current residents included many people who are actively involved in shaping the future of the Mattapan. We interviewed community garden coordinators, health care providers, community organizers, and urban farmers, among others.

We also worked together in small groups on five collaborative research projects, through which we sought to understand Mattapan from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Our groups used a variety of research methods. For example, one group used textual analysis to examine how Mattapan has been described in local papers (The Bay State Banner and the Boston Globe) since the 1950s. Another group used Arc GIS to make community asset maps, focusing especially on food access. Another group did a neighborhood health profile, drawing on publicly available quantitative data. Another group explored the literature on the benefits of green space, including community farms and gardens. My group focused on food access from the perspective of Mattapan’s youngest residents, mapping foodways along Blue Hill Ave. Our goal, across all of these groups, was to provide useful information about the neighborhood – past and present – to the partners developing the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm.

At the same time, our class learned a lot about the potential benefits of urban farming. These include improving nutrition, increasing community social capital and civic engagement, providing opportunities for physical activity, and more. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, almost 81 percent of the American population lives in a metropolitan area. Urban farms could offer a practical solution to mounting concerns about food inaccessibility and carbon emissions. Urban farming enables communities to eat locally sourced food, which in turn enhances economic growth while increasing food quality and building healthier communities.

Through the landmark efforts of Historic Boston Incorporated, the Urban Farming Institute and The Trust for Public Land, Mattapan will have its own urban farm. Most discourse around urban farms center around the environmental and nutritional benefits for a neighborhood. Throughout the duration of the course, I’ve spent some time thinking about how the space of an urban farm be used beyond growing food in order to support the health and fitness of the Mattapan community. Based on my personal experience and what I’ve learned this semester, I am thinking about how farms can foster two important kinds of connection, the kinetic engagement of younger generations and community-university partnerships.

Kinetic Engagement
My first thought about urban sustainability was how to engage the youngest generation in dialogue about healthy eating habits and agriculture through farm based education and empowerment. Having grown up in a rural area myself, some of my fondest childhood memories were at the Heifer Farm summer camp in Rutland, MA. Most of us were only 8 or 9, but I’ll never forget how we learned to make cheese from the goats that we milked every day, or how learning about the vegetables that needed to be harvested that week. It was then that I realized that someone had spent hours tilling the soil, planting the seeds and harvesting the crops that my parents then went to the grocery store to buy. Fourteen years have passed since my camp experiences, but I remain changed by learning how and where food comes from.

Quantitative studies support my lived experience. Research on school gardens has demonstrated that they can contribute to STEM education and improve food related behaviors. Gardening has also been shown to increase vegetable and fruit intake in children. Therefore introducing garden-based nutrition education programs may offer a strategy for increasing fruit and vegetable intake in children. Gardening with young people is a mechanism for health promotion!

Looking to the future of the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm, “seed to table” programs for young people might offer a way to promote the joy of growing and cooking vegetables and herbs. Such a program may look to work with food and nutritional professionals to create garden-based nutrition education programs that will connect children with vegetables through hand-on activities. Children that have grown up visiting and knowing about the farm will likely have a close attachment to the farm and therefore could contribute to its long-term sustainability.

Academic Partnerships
For me the best part of this semester was the partnership between Brandeis and UFI. I felt that this was a mutually beneficial relationship that allowed us to apply the research techniques that we have learned throughout our coursework to collect data that could be helpful to an organization doing important work in Mattapan. The students in our class had the opportunity to apply our research skills while making a contribution (we hope!) in the “real world.”

Partnerships between academic institutions and community groups can be complicated. I’ve learned how important it is that academics listen first – rather than coming into communities with their own agendas. And, in the context of strong partnerships, academic researchers have a role to play. First, research in food policy, sustainable design and public health evaluation can support local efforts. Second, academics can help to document the benefits of urban farming in Mattapan, and provide information for other urban communities looking to do the same. Lastly, community-academic partnerships are also of service to students in the Greater Boston Area. By offering academic credit based internships and practicums, local high schools and universities could open more opportunities for collaboration.

I loved learning about Mattapan and the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm this semester. I am graduating on May 22, but I am excited to come back and see the farm when it is up and running. I know that by becoming a place of social integration, learning, and collaboration, the Fowler Clark Epstein Farm can become a place where food meets community and an important contributor to health in Mattapan.