URI’s Free Farmers Market wins national sustainability award

This year’s market opens Sept. 8

KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 1, 2022 – A team effort by staff from across campus at the University of Rhode Island has led to recent recognition by the National Association of College & University Food Services. URI recently received word that it won the Grand Prize Sustainability Award, for Outreach and Education, this year, recognizing its Free Farmers Market, which started last year

Community volunteers shared URI-grown vegetables at last year’s Free Farmers’ Markets on the University of Rhode Island Quadrangle. The veggies were just picked from URI’s Agronomy Farm. Photo by Nora Lewis.

It’s a long path from farm to table. The work started long before last year when Dr. Rebecca Brown, professor of plant sciences, and her student crew began growing crops at URI’s Teaching Garden. The growing takes place at URI’s Agronomy Farm on the west edge of campus, where students grow vegetables on 30 acres of farmland, from planting to harvest, researching and growing a variety of crops and donating tons of produce annually. Master Gardeners and other community volunteers help with the harvest and also pick fruit at East Farm.

The idea of a free market happened as a conversation among a handful of staff members, including Kelli Kidd, nutrition specialist at Health Services and in the Athletics Department, and Sharon Pavignano, associate director of corporate and foundation relations, and a master gardener. Kidd and Pavignano then asked the question: how could the excess food from the University’s research farms be connected with the larger URI community? The farms had shared food before with Graduate Village, the Jonnycake Center, and Rhody Outpost food pantry. But there was still so much produced in the annual fall harvest. 

What better way to share the wealth than to set up a table, or two, on the Quadrangle?

Staging a weekly farmers market in the middle of campus was no small feat. Kidd and Dr. Amanda Missimer worked with the Teaching Garden at URI’s Gardner Crops Research Center, where Rebecca Brown supervised student employees harvesting produce; students from Dr. Brown’s vegetable production class and Dr. Missimer’s and Dr. Sarah Amin’s nutrition classes helped gather additional crops and distribute the produce. Greenhouse/farm manager Tim Sherman transported the produce to the Quad each week. 

On site, Chef Manager Aaron Fitzsenry offered delicious cooking demos to entice passersby. Crisp apples harvested from the East Farm orchards made a portable snack for students heading to class. Other departments joined in, from the Counseling Center and Campus Recreation to Health Education and Cooperative Extension. And a grant from Amica, secured by Pavignano and the URI Foundation, helped round out offerings with needed funds for seeds and fertilizer, etc.

Fitzsenry said he knew they had created something special when he started to recognize participants at the market week to week. The “all comers” vibe means students can freely approach and receive the bounty; it’s all free. 

As student customers visit the market each week, they not only learn about food production but new parts of the University. 

Kidd said there have been psychological benefits to the effort, as well as physical – the outdoor market offers positive and safe interaction and volunteers enjoy the chance to connect with a core part of the school’s mission. The program also stands out as being one of a few that do anything like this, definitely in Rhode Island and likely in New England, she said.

Market basket

The produce offered is fresh as can be, picked Wednesday and distributed Thursday.

This year’s market will see some returning favorites and new selections. Visitors can expect watermelon, squash, and parsnips, as well as eggs from Peckham Farm. Brown said they’ll start the semester off with basil, tomatoes, eggplant, lunchbox peppers, and other summer favorites. “As the weather cools, we will have an abundance of kale, lettuce, chard, carrots, potatoes, and other fall veggies. Hopefully something for everyone!” They also hope to host a visit from Mary Parlange‘s chickens.

Fitzsenry appreciates working at a land-grant university where study of food growing is part of the curriculum, indeed, one of the missions of URl. “Meeting and working with people who are deeply knowledgeable about food systems in an environment that encourages learning and betterment has been personally rewarding,” he commented. 

“The Free Farmers Market is a prime example of how something can become more than the sum of its parts,” he said. 

The productive URI farmers also contributed to an impressive bottom line that the University’s math and business majors would approve of. Last year, the farm yielded 5,100-plus pounds of produce which, if purchased wholesale, would have cost the University an estimated $9,884.00. Instead, this was shared for free with more than 1,400 people in the URI community.

This year’s free farmers market starts Thursday, Sept. 8, and will take place weekly until the last Thursday in October (11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. and 2 – 3 p.m.). Bring a reusable shopping bag or get one on-site from the FFM sponsors: Health Services, Nutrition & Food Sciences, Dining Services, Campus Recreation, and the URI Counseling Center.

“This group effort was particularly great to see,” said Pierre St-Germain, director of URI Dining Services, “not only because we were feeding people but because of the outreach and education involved. This kind of robust cooperation across departments is really what being a collaborative university is all about.”

The market is open to anyone in the URI Community, student or employee, on or off campus. All are welcome and encouraged to visit. 

To volunteer at the harvest or market, click on the Free Farmers Market link at Nutrition and Food Sciences

Follow along at @urifreefarmersmarket.