Center for Community Engagement

Getting 'real world experience': Robyn Lightner '11 shapes Boston food policy with research and community organizing

Robyn Lightner '11

May 2011—Story by Jenny Morgan, photo courtesy of Robyn Lightner ’11

Robyn Lightner ’11 never planned on writing a thesis.

She was so sure, in fact, that she made clear on her Civic Engagement Scholars application that a thesis was not in her future. An environmental studies major, Lightner (standing, on the right) was applying to the fellowship in 2010 to fund a summer internship focusing on food access in underserved neighborhoods in Boston. She was awarded the fellowship—with no thesis strings attached— and began working for the Food Project and the Bowdoin Street Health Center. Lightner’s biggest project was to initiate a study comparing the cost and quality of farmers’ market produce to grocery store produce. No one working on food issues in Boston had ever conducted such a study, and by the end of the summer, it was clear that she wasn’t finished. “I didn’t feel that I could let it go,” Lightner reflects. “I fell in love. I really felt invested in the follow through…and [getting] a good message out.” She continued her research, eventually translating the project into a 100-page thesis and a presentation for the Boston Food Policy Council. The thesis that might never have been is now helping shape the conversation on how to support getting fresh, local, and healthy produce in Boston’s underserved communities.

Based in Dorchester and Roxbury, Lightner spent her summer internship immersed in every aspect of local food production and access. She worked closely with Cathy Wirth, the healthy food access coordinator at the Bowdoin Street Health Center, to run a farmers' market and launch a pilot community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in partnership with the center’s parent hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Lightner ran community workshops, distributed recipes, tirelessly publicized the market and CSA, and joined Wirth in policy discussions with the Boston Public Health Commission. Lightner developed the farmers’ market study under the joint supervision of Wirth and Cammy Watts, director of community programs at the Food Project. She also volunteered with the Food Project’s Summer Youth Program, harvesting and preparing produce with a team of 8- to 14-year-olds. “Robyn is hands down the best intern I’ve had,” Wirth observes, adding, “She took [the study] even further than Cammy and I had ever imagined it.”

For a period of 16 weeks, Lightner evaluated the price and quality of 10 “staple vegetables,” including green beans, carrots, bell peppers, and white potatoes in local farmers’ markets and grocery stores. She found that farmers’ market produce was only 3% more expensive than grocery store produce, or $8 over the 16-week season. The farmers’ market produce was of considerably higher quality—Lightner notes in her thesis that farmers’ market produce is harvested only 24-48 hours before it is sold, it travels just two hours or less from its point of origin, and is either grown organically or with an integrated pest management (IPM) system. Lightner is quick to point out that “these results are unique to these neighborhoods.” She explains that farmers’ markets in Dorchester and Roxbury are “more like small road side stands” with usually three or fewer vendors per market. Participating farmers make significant price adjustments to meet the price point in lower-income neighborhoods— while paying what Lightner calls “disproportional operational fees” in order to sell their produce. The end result is that while produce prices are affordable for the buyer, achieving long-term sustainability of such a vital community presence is extremely difficult.

Lightner’s summer internship and subsequent research have afforded her an intimate understanding of both the needs and challenges facing lower-income communities when it comes to food access. She explains in her thesis that access means “physical availability, affordability, and practical awareness,” and that “food choices are more an issue of economics than of nutrition.” In her presentation to the Boston Food Policy Council, she outlined four simple action items that could provide further support for food access in lower-income communities: lowering registration/permit costs for farmers; increasing support for farmers in lower-income neighborhoods; relaxing health regulations to allow markets to hold food demonstrations; and educational programs for consumers on the affordability of farmers’ markets.

What is Lightner’s advice to current Amherst College students? “Get that real world involvement. I learned how important it is to connect with what you’re learning about at the grassroots, ground level. I was doing this statistical research on prices— but at the same time I was also on a daily basis interacting with the people and the audience that this information was going to be given to.” This “real world involvement” facilitated a partnership between Lightner, her internship organizations, and the Environmental Studies faculty at Amherst that led to a groundbreaking study with implementable public policy. Wirth explains that she and Watts could have never done this research on their own: “[Robyn] actually had the time and the intellectual ability to do it. We got a lot more information than just comparing average prices, which is probably as far as we could have taken it.” Lightner hopes to one day enroll in a Master’s degree program at the Freidman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts University— and they should be certainly prepared if she claims she won’t be writing a thesis.

Jenny Morgan is a staff writer for the CCE.  She loves making homemade pasta sauce, photography, and reading books at all hours of the day. She welcomes any questions or comments at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.