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Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Sustainable Food Systems

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By Luke Pryjma

Science sometimes has the reputation of being cold and distant from the society its creations affect.  WPI’s Center for Sustainable Food Systems is working to change that stereotype.  Engineering students in their junior year at WPI have the opportunity to participate in a year-long field-based project that asks them to create social change.

Students at WPI are required to complete an Interactive Qualifying Project, or IQP.  The IQP is meant to challenge students to address a problem that lies at the intersection of technology and human needs. Generally, these projects involve some analysis of how technology affects, and is affected by, individuals and communities. Many of the projects are proposed by external agencies, and most are done in teams. The students can choose a variety of off- or on-campus IQPs.

At the 2013 NOFA/Mass Winter Conference, five student groups presented their projects.  The students chose to use their science training to solve a problem in our developing sustainable food system.  In groups of three to five, students had the ambitious task of understanding a food system problem and helping to solve it.

Admittedly, some student groups felt their IQP was more dynamic than initially believed and hoped that future student groups would continue the project.  All projects will be available to the public at WPI’s library website at (The Center for Sustainable Food systems will have a website shortly, but until then the library website is the best place to find project reports).  

The first project presented was “School Foodscapes”.  The goal was to understand what foods high school students eat and why.  The students researched current food choice studies and showed choices are strongly influenced by proximity to food type, advertising, and income status.  For a more personal understanding of why kids eat the food they eat, the group teamed up with the local Boys and Girls Club.  They asked the kids who used the club to keep food diaries. After the diaries are finished, the group plans to discuss with the kids about their food choices.  The group hopes their findings will affect future food justice policies in Worcester and nation-wide.

The second project presented was “Freight Farms”.  The students in this group took the most engineering-centered approach toward helping our food system.  They teamed up with an existing company, Freight Farms, which sells shipping containers that are converted into indoor farms.  Freight Farms are pre-packaged hydroponic farms that can help grow food in urban environments and then transport the food over shorter distances. Freight Farms employs vertical, high-density growing in a fully automated environment.  One difficulty the group had was determining the clientele for Freight Farms, so the team is researching the extent to which the freight farm model could be attractive not only to urban farmers, but to other growers who want to extend their growing season or to diversify their production.    The goal of the group was to increase local food production through agricultural technology.

The third group presented a project called “Local Food Production”.  They focused on policy and access for urban growing inWorcester.  Working alongside the Worcester Food Policy and Active Living Council, the students set out to increase access to healthy, local food in Worcester. Their goal was to identify and help people overcome the hurdles of urban growing.  They compiled information and made maps that will help people to grow food in the city, and to promote urban growing on a policy level. This group studied urban soil safety and laws in hopes to educate the public.  The Local Food Production group hopes they will reach people concerned with urban growing through a variety of outlets.  Using their research, they may create pamphlets, a website, and/or GIS maps.

The fourth group presented the project “Mobile Markets”.  They set out to understand an existing mobile farmers’ market and how they could improve the model.  Working with Worcester’s Regional Environmental Council, the students examined REC’s current mobile farmers' market.  Through studying mobile farmers' markets across the country, the students identified various challenges and came up with ways to improve the model.  Their goal was to increase access to healthy, local food through the use of their redeveloped mobile farmers’ market model, thereby strengthening the food producer-to-consumer connection.  The students hoped their study of mobile markets would create incentive for others to use them.

The fifth and final group project was “Food Hub”.  This group worked with the New Hampshire office of ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, and an organic farmer interested in creating a food hub.  The goal of their food hub is to bring small farmers together to increase their ability to capture larger volume sales in institutional markets as well as marketing fresh produce to low-income communities in the region.    They performed a feasibility study for the building of a regional food hub inManchester,NH.  Through their research they identified many food deserts in New Hampshire that are in need of more healthy local food.  

At the conclusion of each group’s project, feedback was solicited from the audience to gather leads for possible alliances in their mission.  Synergies between the groups were evident and helped strengthen each group’s project.  WPI’s student base has taken an active role in supporting their local food system.  The engineering students used skills indicative of their field, including technology, mapping, internet proficiency, and problem solving.  They also stepped outside of their field to confront a food justice issue with a quality not often asked of science: compassion.

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