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Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

Tisch Scholars Work toward a Healthier Somerville

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Through their individual projects, four Tisch Scholars form an integral part of a network of organizations within Somerville’s food economy that are fighting to create a healthier and more sustainable city.

Anna Hymanson, A16, sells half a pound of tomatoes to a Somerville resident in the city’s Mobile Farmers’ Market. Whatever she doesn’t sell that day will be picked up and delivered to homeless shelters and soup kitchens by students from the Tufts Food Rescue Program, part of the Somerville Food Security Coalition, where Meghan Bodo, A16, works to improve communication and collaboration between coalition members.

Meanwhile, that Somerville resident prepares a nutritious salad with her tomatoes. She throws the scraps and leftovers into the worm composting bin that Hannah Recht, A16, taught her to make at Groundwork Somerville. In a few months she’ll have valuable compost for her home garden, which her son helps her tend thanks to what he learned as part of Groundwork Somerville’s Green Team, where Zoe Jeka, A17, teaches gardening skills and workshops on the intersections of food and community.

The chain of events described above is a hypothetical example. But the connections between the work of Hymanson, Bodo, Recht, and Jeka are very real. Through their individual Tisch Scholar projects, these four Tufts undergraduates form an integral part of a network of organizations within Somerville’s food economy that are fighting to create a healthier and more sustainable city.

An Oasis in a Food Desert

Recht has worked with Groundwork Somerville, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable community development, for the past two years. That experience has given her a good sense of many of the problems that the city’s residents face.

“I think the issues that Somerville has with food are the same issues that the whole country has with food, like difficult access to healthy and fresh foods, especially, in low-income communities,” says Recht. “Somerville has those issues, but Somerville, way more than most communities, is doing a lot to address it.”

One of the most important ways in which Somerville addresses those issues is through its Mobile Farmers’ Market, part of the city’s Shape up Somerville program, and Anna Hymanson’s 2014 Scholar Project. A roving box truck filled with fresh produce that operates in the Summer and Fall, the market brings fruits and vegetables at affordable prices to communities that normally lack easy access.

The market, stocked mostly with products from Enterprise Farm in western Massachusetts, sets up shop twice a week at the Mystic Housing Development, North Street, and the senior housing at the Somerville Council on Aging. The markets are managed by the city’s Shape Up Somerville coordinator, Erica Satin-Hernández, herself a Tisch Scholar alumna who graduated from Tufts in 2013.

“If you either live in the housing developments or receive any government food assistance, like WIC or SNAP, all of our prices are half off,” says Hymanson, adding that 80%-90% of the Market’s customers receive that discount.

According to Hymanson, at each spot the Market typically serves 50-60 customers who take home fresh seasonal produce—in late October, squash, yams, and sweet potato were some of the favorites. Each interaction with a customer is not just a business transaction, but often a conversation about food, culture, and community.

“Customers are always really excited to tell me about what they’re going to do with the food and explain their recipes, so I learn a lot too,” says Hymanson, who also previously worked at the Arcadia Mobile Market in Washington, D.C. as a Tisch Summer Fellow. Both there and in Somerville, she saw first-hand that the importance and implications of her work can go far beyond its impact on any individual.

“One of the things I really appreciate about the mobile market structure is that it not only creates access to food, it also creates these kinds of pop up communities: spaces for folks to come outside, meet each other, gather, talk about issues happening in the community, and celebrate,” says Hymanson.

Farm to Table to Worm Bin

One of those celebrations took place on Saturday, October 25, in honor of National Food Day and the end of the Mobile Market’s season. In addition to the usual market, there were raffles, music, games for children, and other activities related to food in Somerville—including one workshop that divided the opinions of many Somerville residents.

“It’s really funny to see people’s different reactions to, ‘Oh we’re building a worm bin, we have 4,000 worms right here,’” says Hannah Recht. “Some people think it’s the coolest thing and want to touch them and play with them, and other people just think it’s gross and disgusting.”

Recht’s Tisch Scholar project is Groundwork Somerville’s emerging vermicompost, or worm composting, program. She was on hand at the Food Day celebration to build worm bins for home composting, a process that she assures is much simpler (and less “gross”) than it might seem.

“You take a plastic bin, fill it up with a lot of paper materials, put a bunch of worms in there, and then you start feeding it your food scraps,” says Recht matter-of-factly. “It’s a really great way to reduce food waste, and if you’re a gardener the end result is this really valuable compost.”

Two Somerville residents took home their own worm bins—each with 1,000 red wigglers—after the Food Day celebration, and more took home informative pamphlets about home composting. Thanks to Recht’s work, more Somerville homes are poised to adopt vermicomposting as part of Groundwork Somerville’s broader efforts to promote sustainability.

“The goal is for Groundwork to have all of those resources and be able to continue providing that for interested community members even when I’m not there,” she says.

Recht, whose previous Scholar project was with the Groundwork Somerville Green Team and who continued that work as a Tisch Summer Fellow, is pleased with the positive impacts of her work, and is especially gratified to work alongside fellow Scholars. Whether it’s sharing experiences with Zoe Jeka, who succeeded her in the Green Team project; sharing the stage with Hymanson at a Food Day celebration; or coordinating with Meghan Bodo and the Food Security Coalition, of which Groundwork Somerville is also a member, there are ample opportunities for teamwork and mutual learning.

“It’s great. We’re all doing very similar work and it’s nice to be able to talk about it, collaborate, and share that experience,” she says.

“This kind of work is really what the Scholars program is all about,” says Sara Allred, the Scholars Program Administrator at Tisch College. “It’s not just individual service; it’s working alongside community members and organizations in order to address challenges from a variety of perspectives and to build capacity for the future.”