By Caryn B. Davis

FRESH (Food, Resources, Education, Security, Health) New London grew out of the idea that healthy food is a basic human right. It was established 11 years ago by Arthur Lerner, the non-profit organization’s founder and director. Lerner, in collaboration with a variety of diverse community partners and dedicated volunteers, is working diligently toward the goal of changing our food system “from what it is to what it ought to be: healthful, universally accessible, sustainable, just, and beautiful.”

Lerner grew up outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but always had a deep reverence for the natural world even within this urban setting. He attended Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts where he started off studying environmental science until an off-handed comment made by one of his professors set him upon a different path.

“He said environmentalists and agriculturists are often at odds with each other. This blew my mind. I did not understand it all,” says Lerner.

While he may not have immediately comprehended this concept, it did spark his curiosity. He feverishly researched the history of land use in different countries and eras and the agrarian revolutions and movements fought by those demanding access to land and defending their right to support themselves and their families through farming and growing their own food. As he explored these ideals, which at first he thought were just peripheral philosophies, he soon discovered cultures from across the globe shared similar beliefs.

After this revelation, Lerner decided to change his major from environmental science to agroecology which strives to create sustainable ecosystems, while considering the social, cultural, economic, and environmental influences and effects on our communities and the earth as a whole.

“Agroecology is concerned with the maintenance of a productive agriculture that sustains, yields, and optimizes the use of local resources while minimizing the negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of modern technologies. In industrial countries, modern agriculture with its yield maximizing high-input technologies generates environmental and health problems that often do not serve the needs of producers and consumers. In developing countries, in addition to promoting environmental degradation, modern agricultural technologies have bypassed the circumstances and socio-economic needs of large numbers of resource-poor farmers,” wrote Miguel A. Altieri, an Associate Professor and Associate Entomologist in the Division of Biological Control at the University of California, Berkeley, on the website.

After college, Lerner volunteered for an agricultural, grassroots organization called Nuestras Raíces headquartered in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He learned how to grow his own food, build houses, and listen to what people really needed.

“I found through people I met there and training sessions I attended, that there was this syndrome where well educated white men would come in to various communities and try to solve the world’s problems, but not do a lot of listening. So I entered into a period of listening and trying to understand how I could help develop and sustain a healthy and just food system,” Lerner says.

The result was FRESH New London whose mission is “to build momentum for food system change through local agriculture and youth empowerment. They use food to connect the community, encourage stewardship, inspire  leadership, and incite change.”

FRESH New London offers many programs that help to foster these goals. On the grounds at the Waterford Country School in Waterford, Connecticut, they maintain an outdoor educational classroom consisting of five acres where they grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. The site has an irrigation pond, three greenhouses where many of the plants are started from seeds, and a 1,000 square foot barn for harvesting their bounty.

Through their Summer Crew Program for teens ages 14-16 which offers participants small stipends, students have an opportunity to literally get their hands dirty working the land while learning about gardening, farming, the food system, and food justice.

“We talk about the struggles of food in the community and how food ties the community together when we sit down at the table at the end of a day. We talk about the difference between our cultures and the foods we eat. What’s on your plate, what’s on your neighbor’s plate. We go to the farm and try to tie that into agriculture and teach the kids about gardening: what weeds you can eat and what weeds you pull,” says Julie Garay, Assistant Farm Manager, and Youth Program Manager for FRESH New London.

“This is a training spot where kids, youths, and families can connect with the natural world and their ability to help grow food. In the process we actually produce food that is then given away or sold to help fund the program,” adds Lerner.

One way they do this is through their Mobile Market. It is an outreach program where they go into communities such as senior housing sites to sell nutritious food on a sliding scale so it remains affordable to all including low-income individuals and families utilizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system, or Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons.

Another initiative is their USDA Farm to School Support Program, which is a collaborative project between FRESH, the Farm Fresh New London County  Schools, ACHIEVE New London County Coalition, and the New London County Food Policy Council. This summer they are delivering lunches on a daily basis to 20 sites throughout New London that include playgrounds and housing units.

“It’s kind of like the backpack program where kids are sent home from school with food in their backpacks,” Lerner says.

In the winter, they bring the food into the school cafeterias where it is served by the students to educate them about the merits of consuming healthy, locally grown produce.

“We are building a network to expand our outreach outside the city and county. We are looking to schools, teachers, and students as the epicenter of the change we are seeking and working through farm to school, which is a national effort to bring food education into the classroom and healthier foods into the cafeterias,” Lerner says. “We are also trying to promote youth leadership, youth empowerment, and local agriculture through school gardens and connecting farms to schools.”

In an effort to promote nutrition, unite communities through a sense of pride and stewardship, encourage local agriculture in general and within the urban environment, and to provide a resource for hands-on education, FRESH starts, supports, and maintains gardens throughout the city of New London in conjunction with other groups. Sixty raised beds are available for those interested in helping to transform dilapidated areas into vibrant, green spaces, while 45 beds are reserved for FRESH who uses them for educational purposes and food production. The gardens have also become gathering places not only for the gardeners themselves, but also for the community at large. A pavilion and wood fired pizza oven at FRESH’s Community Garden Center on the corners of Williams and Mercer Streets, inspires a natural dialog for potluck meals, workshops, and other educational opportunities.

“Experiential education is how we work. Hearing about gardening, but actually working in the garden with your children, is quite a different thing,” Lerner says. “When kids come to the FRESH Food Program, they usually come in with some interest but not a lot of knowledge about it. We want to build the relevancy of this and have young people understand how this connects to them personally, at a local level, and globally, in terms of the planet and their own lives.”

Although FRESH New London is a local organization, they are working towards a global movement that encompasses health, food justice and security, and ecological balance. “It involves a resurgence of small local agriculture and recognizes that environmental degradation often impacts people who have already been marginalized economically and politically. It strives to reconnect people to the natural world and to each other in order to build a food system that is built on stewardship: stewardship of ourselves, stewardship of our communities, and stewardship of the natural world,” concludes Lerner.

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