Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life has partnered with Bridgeport’s largest urban agriculture initiative to document the benefits of growing fresh produce in the city.

Fairfield’s Center for Faith and Public Life has partnered with Bridgeport’s largest urban agriculture initiative to document the benefits of growing fresh produce in the city.

It’s a hot and humid July morning, but the Reservoir Community Farm is alive with activity.

A pink, hand-painted diagram of an earthworm hangs from the side of a garden shed. The sun beats down on the well-used wheelbarrows, filled with recently plucked weeds.

Transformed from an empty lot, the 1.7-acre farm in the Reservoir-Whiskey Hill neighborhood – where 11 percent of residents live below the poverty level – is Bridgeport’s first urban agricultural development. This farm produces and sells thousands of pounds of affordable, fresh produce each year for the locals.

The urban farm was founded through the Green Village Initiative (GVI), a non-profit organization whose mission is to grow food and to expand food justice through urban agriculture. The project in Bridgeport features more than 100 garden beds that are maintained by a fleet of volunteers.

On this morning, Donald Wilson, a local chef at a vegan and vegetarian Caribbean restaurant, has his palms filled with delicate, just-harvested zucchini blossoms that he intends to add to his menu.

There’s also a group of high schoolers working on the farm; they’ve been there since the early morning as part of a youth program led by a farm manager.

One of them, Maya West, a teen at a nearby magnet school, said she’s learned so much at the farm and finds it always interesting, no matter the conditions.

“The staff here always makes it fun even if it’s really hot,” she said, pointing the tour groups’ attention to some crouching purple flowers alive with bumble bees. “Those borage plants are here for pollination and you can eat them, too. They kind of taste like cucumber.”

West speaks with pride and knows her plants, identifying organic beets, bok choy, collard greens, garlic scapes, tomatoes, and red-leafed kale that she helped to preen earlier that day.

As part of her senior capstone project, Fairfield University environmental studies major Julia Nojeim ’19 is there to observe and document nine of GVI’s 13 community gardens. The collected data will measure the gardens’ effect on social cohesion, their fiscal impact for the community, and how they serve residents’ health, well-being, and engagement.

In 2015, Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life (CFPL) partnered with GVI to support the project, and to offer the talents of Fairfield’s students in assisting with the research.

“I’m excited and grateful to have GVI as a partner on one of our first major projects under the new Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) initiative in the Center for Faith and Public Life,” said Melissa Quan, director of the CFPL, who bridged the partnership three years ago.

GVI will also use Nojeim’s research to refine its program strategies and skill building workshops, and bolster the case for future urban farm and garden projects as part of the Bridgeport Urban Agriculture Master Plan.

Upon arrival at each of the gardens, Nojeim and the garden captain make their way around the grounds, closely documenting the week-to-week growth and yield, as well as the amount of time volunteers have spent in the garden.

The data collected provides insight about the gardens’ productivity and will be translated into various languages including Spanish, Creole, and Portuguese, to share with community members and GVI for future gardens.

“We hope to show that the green space and produce the community gardens provide foster values of caring, commitment, and pride in the surrounding area,” stated Nojeim.

Associate professor of sociology and anthropology, Scott Lacy, PhD, whose service learning course focuses on issues surrounding food insecurity (or the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life) said, “We hope to be able to quantify the impact of community gardens in terms of household food security, health, and well-being for families, neighborhoods, communities, and more. We also will be juxtaposing this quantitative analysis with the stories, hopes, and knowledge of real people living in our community.”

The awareness of food “apartheid” – the recognition that fresh produce and good food are often not available in some low-income and urban areas – is on the rise. In 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated that 12.3 percent of Americans are affected by food insecurity. Locally, the 2015 Bridgeport Prospers Report found 23 percent of Bridgeport residents have limited access to affordable nutritious food.

Research has found the best way to combat food apartheid is through urban agriculture and the development of community gardens like the ones in Bridgeport, which bring fresh vegetables and fruits directly to the affected communities.

Fairfield faculty and staff, with the support of the CFPL, have carried out research addressing the issues surrounding food insecurity. As part of service learning courses with Dr. Lacy and Dina Franceschi, PhD, professor of economics, Fairfield students are exposed to these issues on the local level.

The CFPL will continue to build on its research and expand its community partner- ship with GVI, through a two-year project called Community Agriculture Research: Raising Opportunity Together (CARROT), beginning this fall.

“It is important for all students at Fairfield and anywhere to get real-life experience through internships and experiential learning,” said Dr. Franceschi. “For a Fairfield student, part of the package is how to be an agent of change for the better in the world. We challenge our students to both learn and hone their skills, but then figure out how to apply them in positive ways.”

For more information about the Green Village Initiative, visit gogvi.org.