Student fellows make a sustainable difference in New London
The community politics can be daunting. The issues are complicated. Every individual and organization has different priorities.
And the seven students who are working with them through Connecticut College’s Office of Sustainability? They are outsiders.
But the seven – all of them serving the New London Food Policy Council – love it. The work immerses them in community concerns and gives them a chance to make a real contribution.
The Council is a collaboration of food growers, buyers and organizations (from hospitals to the United Way) with an interest in health. All have a common vision of ensuring that affordable and nutritious food is available to every resident of southeastern Connecticut.
Through the College’s Sustainability Fellows Program, the students offer staff support, organize meetings, manage the Council’s social media sites and do research.
“Instead of coming in and doing what we want for the local community, we’re helping to carry out the plans that the community has set for itself,” said Julia Goldman ’15. She said the project has allowed her to form deep connections in the community fabric. “I appreciate that."
Soon, the students also will also be helping a consultant determine if New London is ready for a food hub – an organization that aggregates, markets and distributes the products of local and regional producers. Buyers might include chefs, restaurants, schools and food service directors; sellers could include farmers, dairies and specialty producers. The idea is to strengthen the local food system and expand markets for local products.
The experience will give students an even bigger opportunity to put their liberal arts learning in practice and feel more surely that they are part of the local community, said Josh Stoffel, Campus Sustainability Manager.
Stoffel, chair of the Food Policy Council’s Agriculture Working Group, developed the idea for the fellows program last summer after the terms of the Council’s AmeriCorps VISTA workers expired. He posted a description of the positions and invited students to apply.
“There was a huge amount of interest. Students come to Conn wanting to do something real and make a difference,” Stoffel said. “This is an experience the students are really craving.”
“To have students involved is just amazing. They bring a different perspective. They come in with fresh ideas. They’re the future. They’re the ones we’re doing this for,” said Dina Sears-Graves, vice president for community investment at the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.
Stoffel and the student fellows worked with the United Way last summer to apply for a $25,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Grant for the food hub study. The work will give students an opportunity to become more deeply involved with food producers and community organizations across New London County and develop viable solutions to existing challenges, he said. The study is expected to be completed by next June.
Sears-Graves said the students researched other studies, got the names and addresses of potential consultants and helped draft a request for proposals for the southeastern Connecticut study. The study will look at such issues as the number of farmers in the county and whether they can support the demand generated by a food hub; existing assets that could be leveraged for the food hub; and the type of business model that would best suit local needs.
Stoffel talks with the students about their role in the community, issues of power and privilege, and politics. “Our role is to empower people in the community,” he said. It’s up to the Council to convey the needs of constituents and define how the students can help.
“They love it because it’s real, even when it’s hard. And it’s great preparation for a career,” Stoffel said.
The seven students have different roles and specialties. Goldman, for example, manages the fellowship program.
Ariana Pazmino ’18 is focusing on emergency and supplemental food issues. She works with the Council to ensure that the mobile food pantry and feeding sites around the county have enough quality fruits, vegetables, and meats from credible sources.
“I can make someone else’s day in this community, which all Conn students call home,” Pazmino said. “I love that I get to make a humble difference.”
Pazmino is considering a career in medicine and said learning about local social and economic forces will help her better understand the struggles of the people she wants to serve.
Brent Lo ’16 is helping to manage the work of the food hub consultant. A transfer student from the University of California, San Diego, Lo is an environmental studies major originally from Arlington, Mass.
“It is really a perfect answer to what I came to Conn to do,” he said. “It is comprehensive – a tribute to the liberal arts. It involves research as well as something tangible.”
Goldman, who is from New Rochelle, N.Y., is a government major and environmental studies major. She is also a scholar in the College’s Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. She said the work with the Council is perfect because it combines her interest in public policy and the environment.
Sears-Graves said the students are energizing the adults. “It’s contagious,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”