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INNOVATORS Q&A

Combating food insecurity among college students with campus farms

The University of Rhode Island launched a free farmer’s market in 2021. This year, they are providing up to 1,000 pounds of free produce to food insecure students every week.

Students harvesting produce at the University of Rhode Island, which will eventually be given out as part of the campus' free farmers market. The program is combatting food insecurity among students.Nora Lewis

When the pandemic hit, Sharon Pavignano saw students at the University of Rhode Island get laid off from their jobs on- and off- campus, lose family members, and struggle to support themselves.

The international students who did not come from comfortable backgrounds, all of whom cannot legally receive SNAP benefit or obtain jobs in the US under a student visa, oftentimes could not afford to eat, said Pavignano, the associate director of corporate and foundation relations at URI.

“Many don’t come from families that have the means to help them,” she said. “And many of these students have not fully recovered from that.”

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An all-volunteer operation launched URI’s free farmer’s market last year as a pilot program, providing free produce to students across campus. This September, the university received the “Grand Prize Sustainability Award” by the National Association of College & University Food Services for its free farmer’s market.

Sharon Pavignano, the associate director of corporate and foundation relations at the University of Rhode Island, harvesting apples on campus as part of the free farmers market.Nora Lewis

Q: When and why did URI start its free farmer’s market?

Pavignano: We became aware that we had several students — especially foreign graduate students — who did not make enough money to support themselves. The farmer’s market started as a pilot two years ago, but really launched last year. We are a land-grant college university so we already own and operate three farms on campus. We knew that we couldn’t live in a community where we had all this food but we weren’t actually taking care of our community.

How much is given away each week?

We estimate that we give out about 800 to 1,000 pounds of vegetables each week this year. The market always runs out so we know there is greater need.

Who is growing the produce and where?

Rebecca Brown runs the teaching garden. She has about a 1/2-acre planted and would like to double it for next year. She produces the bulk of the vegetables that go to the Free Farmers Market. Last year, they gave away 5,100 pounds of vegetables during the fall market, which was a pilot that ran for eight weeks. I’m a master gardener and one of my projects was to harvest the apples. We have 90 apple trees and six pear trees at another farm. Last year we harvested and gave away about 8,000 pounds [of apples and pears], although they did not only go to URI students but to food banks and local churches as well.

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Who is tending to its daily and seasonal needs?

Faculty, staff, nutritionists, and students [in various agriculture and sustainability courses]. We have master gardeners helping with the harvest, and even the president’s wife [Mary Parlange, who is also involved in other sustainability programs at the university] is helping us with the harvest, picking apples and vegetables, and then helping us give out the goods at the free markets. We’re lucky to have the people we have because it’s completely volunteer-based.

Where are the markets?

We host a weekly market on campus each Thursday and make deliveries to the Graduate Village, the Jonnycake Center, and Rhody Outpost food pantry.

URI has its own food pantry?

Yes, Rhody Outpost is an emergency food pantry that provides food items to food insecure students at URI. It has had some challenges. For instance, it used to be in the basement of a church that is located on campus and did not have refrigeration. We wanted to include fresh foods, like the apples, so the director of dining recently opened the dining warehouse for the pantry this past year so we can do that. URI has also just hired someone that will oversee food insecurity on campus and she will be focused on increasing food other than fresh produce that will be available to students.

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What else is URI doing to address food insecurity on campus?

We’ve included a lot of students — and not just to hand out food. We have a nutritionist at the Cooperative Extension who teaches them about nutrition. The chef from dining is there every week doing a demo of something they could make in their dorm or in a microwave on campus with the food we are already giving them for free. If a student can’t make it to those demos because they have class or work, they can go online where the chef has posted several videos on our website. None of us went to college knowing how to cook, so we’re looking for new ways to address these problems.

The University of Rhode Island's free farmers market has 90 apple trees and six pear trees. In 2021, the first full year of the program, they harvested and gave away about 8,000 pounds of apples and pears.Nora Lewis

Even prior to the pandemic, about 30 percent of all college students experienced food insecurity. How have you seen other colleges approach the problem?

A couple of years ago, when we wanted to pilot the free market, I was looking at how other schools had small food pantries and it gave us a few ideas on how to give out fresh foods. But none of them were in Rhode Island. We do have an advantage here, as opposed to [universities in Providence] because we already have farms, teaching gardens, and the necessary people who already work in agriculture to get it done.

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This market is free, but is it sustainable?

We do have a low-budget operation right now. We want to expand because there is still very much a need. We figured that if we were to raise about $40,000, we could greatly expand the garden and some of the education aspects of the market. We did receive one gift last year from Amica Insurance and we’re in the process of applying for additional grants.

Many of our students, like international students, cannot receive SNAP benefits, so it’s our hope that we can work toward producing enough food to meet the need. Right now, we aren’t there yet.


The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at alexa.gagosz@globe.com.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.