FarMU Fights Food Insecurity

Zoe Laporte, Multimedia Editor

It was the first sunny day in what felt like a year-long rain storm. The farm smelled like manure, the horses neighed quietly in the distance, and the sun shined down on a group of people.

A Misericordia University student studying business administration walked across the muddy ground, surrounded by other students from Marywood University and Penn State studying subjects like nursing and history.

They had worked together for months in the less-than-perfect weather, covered in sweat, leaves, seeds. Their work gloves are permanently stained from the soil. They laughed and talked, remembering their first days on the field when they hardly knew one another.

The students picked ripened tomatoes off the leaning stalks and placed them in boxes. A farmer, visiting from his own farm miles away, inspected the produce and packaged it up. Volunteers loaded the boxes in the back of a truck headed to toward Wilkes-Barre, 20 minutes from the farm, to teach children about locally grown produce in Luzerne County. The event is part of the “Food and Fun at the Park” program, which helps to feed kids during the summer.

The event was just one to take place at FarMU, a project started in May 2018 by Misericordia University’s Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children program (WWC), which provides single mothers and their children with housing as the mothers pursue higher education.

On a donated acre at Tilling Point Farm, five miles away from campus, volunteers came together to help the Luzerne County communities fight food insecurity.

FarmU donated crates of food and vegetables to “Food and Fun at the Park” to provide families with quality food fresh from the farm

The children sampled the rainbow of fruits and vegetables for lunch.

“Hey, take some tomatoes home,” a Misericordia volunteer said. “It can be a part of dinner tonight.”

The children grabbed a couple tomatoes each. One child handed them to his mother, who was not able to afford them at the grocery store. She said all she could buy was $0.99 ramen.

The family enjoyed their tomatoes as a part of their dinner that night, like so many others did.

Katherine Pohlidal, Director of the WWC Program, witnesses food insecurity first-hand.

“I see, especially in my role, we see a lot of single mother households regionally that we have either conversation with them out in the world, or we’re talking to them in recruiting, or when we’re having interviews – that’s one of the big problems there,” Pohlidal said. “They’re at their homes and they’re food insecure. Often times they’re really worried.”

According to the United States Census Bureau, households led by single mothers experience greater levels of poverty than any other household type at every educational level.

Luzerne County has a food insecurity rate of 12.5%, according to Feeding America. That’s 40,000 individuals suffering in a population of around 320,000.

After months of planning, Pohlidal and the university had FarMU planted and growing.

Local farmers helped to select seeds suitable to withstand the unstable summer weather.

Volunteers planted and worked through unpredictable rain showers; students coaxed garlic plants out of the muddy ground, like peeling a suction cup stuck to a glass wall.

“Mother Nature plays by her own rules, and we had some unexpected things. Our well got hit by lightning at one point,” said Pohlidal. “It’s kind of like ‘Little House on the Prairie’ meets college.”

At one point Pohlidal needed to attend an important mid-day meeting, and she entered her office muddy, sweaty, and sunburned, wearing dirty shorts and a t-shirt, apologizing to her office mates for the mess.

No one minded; nearly everyone who learns of FarMU is attracted to the work. Student volunteers from multiple area colleges, universities and programs worked together and made friendships through their toil together. One volunteer, Diane Bennett, sophomore business major and a member of the WWC program, said her interest in having a “green thumb” led her to FarMU.

“We definitely had a good time out there,” she said, “just documenting it, you know, memories.”

No cellphones, no electronics. Just gloves, the farm, and the conversations on the field.

She said volunteers would talk about food insecurity and who their food would help—WWC program members, local food pantries, summer youth programs. They were concerned about affording to eat healthy, concerned about affording to eat at all, concerned about where food is coming from.

Bennett said she was giving back to a community that gave her so much.

“I feel like a little princess, like – I get all this just to go to school?” she said, “and now, I get to give it to somebody else. It means a lot to me.  I receive, but I’m also going to give.”

Pohidal recalled a FarMU volunteer studying to become a physician’s assistant who told her that because she is conscious of a problem that so many people face, she may ask a future patient, “Are you food insecure? Are you worried about the recommendations to eat healthier as a part of your diabetic treatment because you can’t afford to?”

“It’s a culture shock,” Bennett said, “when you see individuals who don’t know the importance of food.”

In FarMU’s inaugural year, the organization produced over 3,000 pounds of produce. Organizers hope to expand the farm and continue to  provide donations and education about food insecurity.