Heeding Pope Francis’ Call to Connect Poverty and the Environment

November 29, 2016

There’s a moment when you know the connection has been made. A student, or a group of them, comes to the plant shed with cell phones offered up in dirty hands. “Is there somewhere we can put these?”

For an expanding community of professors and students, volunteers and high school kids, The Farm at Stonehill College, a Catholic liberal arts college founded by members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, has become the physical connection to things you can’t normally touch, smell, feel, taste and see.

Simply put: Concepts like hunger, food deserts and the relationship between poor health and poverty become a lot more real when you plant the seeds, water, weed, harvest and drive a truck load of beets, zucchini and broccoli to help fill the shelves of the local food pantry. The concepts of charity, care for the poor, love for our neighbor – the ideas of Jesus Christ, St. Francis and Pope Francis – become concrete when you see your work taken home in grocery bags and eaten in soup kitchens by families who would not likely otherwise have access to fresh produce.

From the outset, when then-Vice President for Mission, Prof. Paul DaPonte of the Religious Studies Department, learned that the term ‘food desert’ applied to our neighboring city of Brockton, Massachusetts, he began to wonder how that image fit with the verdant fields he saw surrounding Stonehill. In 2010, he hired Farm Manager Bridget Meigs, who then recruited a core group of staff, students and volunteers to create a farm that seeks to address food desert conditions and related health challenges like hunger and diabetes, and also make tangible the mission of the College, which exhorts our students to “think, act, and lead with courage toward the creation of a more just and compassionate world.”

In this, Stonehill is attempting to keep step with Pope Francis’ concerns regarding poverty and the environment. In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis reminded us that the effects of climate change are most significant on poor people, who are without the resources to fight it. And he said, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

In 2015, The Farm at Stonehill’s team delivered more than 15,000 pounds of food to our neighbors, distributing healthy, organic produce to food insecure communities through food pantries, neighborhood non-profits and our own “Mobile Market” vegetable van where vegetables are sold at or below cost to produce them. Ninety different kinds of vegetables and fruits are grown to meet the needs of families that currently face an absence of nutrition choice and variety. More than 70 pounds of honey and dozens of bouquets of flowers are produced and sold to help support the efforts of the Farm.

While the produce itself is important, so too are the tangible ties we make for the students between our mission as an academic institution and the work they are doing. The Farm has a lot to teach, and not just about compost and fertilizer. Sociology and theology, biology, photography and economics, earth science and even American literature – all are taught out in the furrows at The Farm.

For each discipline, there are lessons in what is happening on that acre-and-a-half: What are the economic hurdles between the poor and good, organic food? English literature students find themselves with a new view of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and Aldo Leopold’s ‘A Sand County Almanac’ after working in the natural world.

The Farm is also a way to talk about what Pope Francis taught in ‘Laudato Si’ – particularly when he says that in the face of climate change and terrible damage to our planet, and the inequitable distribution of our natural resources, individuals must act:

“An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” he writes.

The Farm helps our community to better understand, and to live, the Pledge of Saint Francis, which says in part, that we all must ‘advocate Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact the poor and vulnerable.’

Every once in a while an exhausted student will ask after a long afternoon in the field, ‘why don’t we get to eat what we grow?’ It’s a question we like to answer, because our response encapsulates everything we teach at The Farm: ‘Our mission is to grow it, then to share it with those who need it far more than we do.’ We then challenge those students to work with our dining services to source more local food from our neighboring farmers – supporting a local, sustainable food economy.

It is a lesson we hope our students carry into everything they do not just at The Farm but also in their lives as alumni active and engaged in their communities.