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Through urban agriculture and campus-community partnerships, Pierce seeks food justice for South Madison

December 22, 2015

Robert Pierce runs five farmers’ markets, directs a mentor program for middle school students, helps teach a course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and still finds time to cook and enjoy the food he grows.

His many ventures are driven by a single vision: He knows how important food is to human health, and he wants everyone to have equal access.

Pierce’s focus on improving the availability of healthy, sustainably grown food began when he returned from military service in Vietnam. He had developed food allergies while abroad, with tests revealing he was allergic to several chemicals used to produce the food he’d been consuming. In an effort to ensure the food he consumed was of the best quality, he took matters into his own hands — literally. He’s been raising his own fruits and vegetables ever since.

Beyond farming, Pierce helps lead numerous local and regional efforts to expand access to healthy, safe and affordable food, and to empower individuals to tend their own crops through sustainable urban agriculture practices.

South Madison Farmers’ Market Manager Robert Pierce
Robert Pierce

“I’d like to see people start to grow their own food again so they know exactly what they’re getting,” he says. “I want to see them making that change in their lives for themselves and their families.”

Pierce sees education as key in battling many of the food security challenges facing society today. He has been a longtime collaborator with UW-Madison, and in 2014, in recognition for his outstanding contributions to multiple campus partnerships in South Madison, he received the LaMarr Billups Community-University Engagement Award. The UW honor highlights exemplary collaborations that transform the campus and community for the public good.

“People need to know what’s going on with their food, what’s going on with their soil, and what’s going on with the environment,” Pierce says. “And then they need to make better choices for how they’re going to eat and how they’re going to grow.”

For several years, Pierce has partnered with the Nelson Institute on a series of undergraduate environmental studies capstone courses designed to improve food justice in the city’s south neighborhoods – an effort led by Environment and Resources doctoral student Dadit Hidayat and Nelson Institute faculty affiliate Alfonso Morales, an associate professor of urban and regional planning.

The first capstone course in the collaboration utilized community-based research to study how the South Madison Farmers’ Market, which Pierce manages, might increase vendor and consumer participation. In the second capstone, students engaged directly with the community to understand their perceptions about local food. A third course built on this work, with students designing strategies from the previous courses’ findings to increase vendor participation at the market, improve perceptions around local organic food consumption, and strengthen community capacity for better food access.

Although environmental studies students are only required to take one capstone course, many have remained involved in the South Madison efforts beyond their classroom work. Of the six students enrolled in the first capstone, four continued to serve in volunteer roles with the second semester’s class.

“The civic engagement mission that we tried to facilitate was successful,” says Hidayat. “The students continued to show passion.”

The latest iteration of the capstone course, held in the fall 2015 semester, is aimed at forging a network of commercial urban agriculture entrepreneurship opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals in South Madison – thereby also improving food access for the community. Environmental studies students will continue the mission in three subsequent semesters of classes, funded by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment and the Plan4Health grant, supporting emerging farmers as they participate in community urban agriculture training, develop business plans, and enter their first growing seasons as vendors at the South Madison Farmers’ Market.

Hidayat, who studies community-university partnerships and how best to translate academic knowledge to community action, says the perspective that community partners like Pierce can offer to students is invaluable. “Partnering with Robert allows us to connect more with reality,” he says.

For Pierce, it’s a worthy cause.

“I just believe that everybody should have access to fresh, safe, affordable food,” he says. “I believe it’s a sovereignty; it’s a right.”