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University community helps Montclair Community Farms grow

Posted in: Research, University

Photo of Montclair State University student wearing gloves and gently holding a chicken.

Since 2012, Montclair State students and faculty with a passion for urban and sustainable farming, affordable food access and healthy eating have embraced the opportunities for hands-on engagement offered by the Montclair Community Farms (MCF).

In fact, Montclair State Center for Community Engagement Director Bryan Murdock estimates that at least 500 students have volunteered at the farm over the past five years.

“They assist with all aspects of maintaining the farm – including planting, weeding, fence maintenance, feeding and watering the chickens, spreading wood chips, harvesting the crops and preparing them for sale on the farm’s mobile produce stand,” he explains.

The University’s Center for Community Engagement supports the farm not only by coordinating student volunteer efforts, but also by administering grant funds, hiring farm employees and engaging faculty and students in community-based learning projects and research. The farm, Murdock notes, plays a vital role in the community by promoting education, social interaction, community building and civic engagement.

A Valuable Community Resource

“A number of years ago, the Montclair Community Farm Coalition, which was operating a farm at Miller Street, in Montclair, was looking to expand their growing capability and approached us to see if we had any unused property that might be converted into a small farm,” recalls Montclair History Center Executive Director Jane M. Eliasof. “We did have a nice piece of land at our Orange Road site – and liked the idea of a farm on site because it helps connect people to their agricultural roots.”

Today, the Montclair Community Farms Coalition is a collaborative network of organizations committed to furthering the MCF mission. Coalition members include Montclair State University, Montclair History Center, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County: Essex 4-H and Master Gardeners, HOMECorp, Montclair Department of Health and Montclair DIGS. Partners for Health Foundation, Capital One Bank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are among the farm’s generous supporters.

According to Murdock, the farm’s success in increasing community access to affordable and healthy food is remarkable for an operation its size. Its mobile farm stand truck brings fresh, affordable organic produce to local seniors and community members with limited access to healthy fresh foods. “It’s like having a farmers market delivered to your doorstep – and is reminiscent of a time when local farmers drove through Montclair neighborhoods selling their produce door-to-door,” he explains.

MCF also educates the community and youth farmers about effective gardening practices, healthy food and sustainability through summer farm camps for K-5 students and an Urban Youth Farmer program for teens. People of all ages can learn about everything from composting to seed saving in this summer’s free series of Let’s Grow Montclair Workshops.

MCF also supports faculty research efforts.

According to Murdock, Nutrition and Food Science Professor Renata Blumberg uses the farm for work on a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project, “Bridging the Gap Between New Jersey Farmers and Consumers Through Research, Education and Outreach,” a goal of which is to strengthen food and agricultural research and outreach through community engagement and service learning.

MCF is also supporting research conducted by Earth and Environmental Science Professor Yang Deng. “He is currently using the farm as a testing site for a USDA research grant on water reuse on urban farms,” notes Murdock.

A Fertile Learning Environment

The farm also provides unique educational opportunities for University students. Blumberg teaches a service-learning class in urban agriculture. “Her students harvest farm crops and prepare them for sale on the mobile produce stand,” Murdock says.

This spring, several students in Nutrition and Food Science Professor Lauren Dinour’s Applied Community Nutrition class created recipe cards featuring farm-grown produce. The cards’ tempting recipes include cucumber, string bean and radish salad; okra with tomatoes and grilled chicken; citrus and roasted beets; summer corn salad; and a kale, banana and berry smoothie.

The cards are distributed primarily to senior citizens from the mobile produce stand during the summer. “These recipes accommodate the unique nutritional needs of older adults, while keeping cost, ease of preparation, cultural appropriateness and availability of ingredients in mind,” says Dinour. “Hopefully the recipe cards will encourage older adults to prepare and consume more vegetables during the summer – and beyond.”

As Site-Lead for the Montclair Community Farm, finance major Peter Kacjan streamlined and reviewed shifts and schedules of University volunteers – and helped replace fencing around the farm garden this spring.

As Kacjan sees it, while MCF meets its mission of providing fresh food and education to community residents, it also has an unintended consequence. “Many residents and University students come down to the farm to learn more about their food and how they can plant gardens of their own.”

“I enjoyed interacting with local community members and college students,” he adds. “Every person has a story and I enjoy listening to their adventures.”

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