In Eden’s Garden: How one USM student is helping feed Maine’s hungry

Multiple times per day, most of us eat some kind of food and don’t give our actions much thought.

But our consumption habits have implications for the world around us — and University of Southern Maine (USM) student Eden Martin wants people to start thinking about that.

Martin, 21, of Mapleton, Maine, is spending her summer as an intern at The UMaine Gardens at Tidewater Farm, an agricultural facility in Falmouth, through her minor in USM’s Food Studies program.

The program — which also offers a graduate certificate — incorporates the study of food systems and critical evaluation of food-related issues including food insecurity, environmental sustainability, and racial and labor justice.

It’s an area of study that connects us all, Martin said.

“What you’re eating and where you buy it has an impact to our economy, environment, political realm and culture,” she said. “Education is such a powerful tool, and understanding where your food comes from really means something.”

Eden Martin gleans Swiss chardSeveral days a week, just off U.S. Route 1, Martin grows and picks produce for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Maine Harvest for Hunger (MHH) Program. She began her work there in the spring, performing administrative tasks and partaking in its Master Gardener training program, a 16-week course on gardening skills.

Now, as she prepares to enter her senior year at USM, Martin helps maintain the gardens, gleans produce and delivers food to Wayside Food Programs that will go to feed those in need.

The experience — plus her coursework in the Food Studies program, she says — has helped her navigate her way through Geography-Anthropology, her major at USM.

“Food Studies has helped me discover that I enjoy Geography-Anthropology because I want to learn more about how humans have, and will continue to, impact their environment.

“I think we can learn from that to help us envision or create a new agricultural system that’s more sustainable,” she said.

A Grassroots Effort to Fight Food Insecurity 

Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England and the ninth highest rate of food insecurity in the United States, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. The MHH program was started in 2000 to help combat those realities by mitigating hunger, improving nutrition and health and helping recipients develop lifelong nutritional habits.

The program mobilizes gardeners, farmers, nonprofit organizations and civic groups to grow and donate produce to pantries, shelters and low-income housing centers.

In 2018, the program donated more than 230,000 pounds of produce to 187 sites, with a monetary value of almost $400,000, according to the University of Maine. 

During the 2018 growing season, sites in Cumberland County distributed 21,353 pounds of fresh produce to 21 sites including food pantries and soup kitchens, according to the Cooperative Extension. Pamela Hargest, manager of the UMaine at Tidewater Farm, says the garden donates upward of 1,200 pounds of produce in any given year.

She’s also said it’s been great to work with USM to secure interns, like Martin, to help the garden fulfill its mission.

“I love any crossover we can get,” Hargest said of the relationship between the Cooperative Extension and USM. “I think we’re in a nice position where we’re so close to USM that it’s a natural fit for us to try to partner on different programs. I’d love to continue to work with USM.”

Eden places mulch on produce

Exploring Options, Effecting Change

In addition to educating students on food systems and their external relationships, USM’s Food Studies program also seeks to give them applicable real-world skills, ranging from hospitality and entrepreneurship to social justice policy and activism.

For that reason, Martin doesn’t see the field as just about nutrition and agriculture, but more about how multiple factors work together to influence the food system as a whole.

“To me, Food Studies is a discipline for everyone,” Martin said. “Our food system is incredibly interconnected. Because of this, it is easy to find an avenue of the food system that interests you.”

Martin said she isn’t sure of her career goals, but is exploring the idea of graduate school to study sustainable agriculture.

“Regardless of what I do, I just want it to be helping someone. I just want to feel like I’m making a difference,” she said.

Martin said the Food Studies program at USM has opened many doors for her.

Not only is she giving back to her community through her work at Tidewater Farm, she’s getting paid for it while earning college credit. She also earned credit for helping the Food Studies program host the Northeast’s first-ever Universities Fighting World Hunger Summit.

More than 500 students, faculty and activists from around the world attended the summit, held at USM in March, to discuss the causes of hunger and to brainstorm ways to take effective action at home and abroad.

“For someone like me [Food Studies has] really helped me decide what to do as a confused student,” she said.

A Passion for Giving Back

Eden with volunteers Like many USM students, Martin prefers learning through hands-on experience rather than, she admits, sitting in a classroom. She said her work outside of USM, internship included, has helped mold her into the learner she is today.

For the entire month of January in 2018, Martin traveled to the Philippines with International Volunteer HQ — a volunteer travel company that works in over 40 destinations around the world — to do environmental service work in local mangrove forests.

The shrubs help prevent coastal erosion, and are endangered. Among her many responsibilities, Martin said, was replanting the mangroves for rehabilitation purposes. She also helped clean beaches and worked in a local garden, an experience she saidEden in the Philippines has stuck with her more than a year later.

“I remember going to the garden, working with the locals there and just hearing their stories and struggles with food,” she said. “The people with the least always get the worst end of the deal with climate change, and to hear how grateful they were with so little — and for us to be there — was really inspiring as well.”

And — just as we are all connected by food — Martin said her favorite memories from her time in the Philippines were those spent over meals with locals and her fellow volunteers.

“No matter where you are in the world, you can feel safe and comfortable with others when you are sharing a meal,” she said.

Story and portraits by Alan Bennett // Office of Public Affairs

Philippines photos courtesy of Eden Martin