By Nicole Despotopulos
Congressman Jim McGovern made a surprise visit to Worcester State University’s campus on Tuesday, March 14, to tour Chartwells Freight Farm.
Chartwells, the dining service at Worcester State, has been operating this unit since December 2015. The Freight Farm, affectionately called the leafy green machine, is a sustainable hydroponic growing system built inside of a shipping container.
It is hard not to notice this 40’ x 8’ x 9.5’ shipping container, found between the Student Center and Health Services office.
McGovern, U.S. Representative of Massachusetts and member of the House Agriculture Committee, wanted to see how well the farm was doing on campus and how it worked.
“I think that in the inner cities, the soil can be contaminated. This is always a challenge,” McGovern said. “You could put these (freight farms) in urban areas or in areas that are in drought.”
McGovern is an open advocate for sustainability initiatives and helped establish the George McGovern- Robert Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, a USDA program that focuses on education, child development, and food security in low-income and food-deficit countries all over the world.
“There are a number of people in this community (Worcester County) that are food insecure and hungry,” McGovern said. “Low-income neighborhoods are where we should think.”
McGovern was led on tour by President Maloney, Chartwells’ Jason Coombs, Meghan Thulin, and Executive Chef Brandon King, along with WSU Director of Sustainability Steve Bandarra.
“There are 200 towers that can grow lettuce and herbs like basil, sage and mustard greens,” King said. “Plants that have flowers struggle to be grown in the unit because there is no real process of pollination, so we mostly grow greens and microgreens.”
Giving McGovern an up-close view of the seed containers and towers, he affirmed that the water is always reused.
“A full tank of water can last a week,” King said. “Also, no pesticides are used in the growing process.”
Although the food grown in the freight farm is not contaminated with pesticides, it cannot be labeled organic due to the plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and mesh in the towers.
An outright payment of $100,000 was used to purchase the unit, Coombs said. The University itself paid for the pad and the digging for the plumbing and electrics, and they pay for the utilities of the unit
“We were originally going to make it into a classroom,” Maloney said. “But we chose not to do so.”
For the next five years, Chartwells will finance the unit and see food cost savings.
As the tour finished, McGovern was visibly pleased with the Freight Farm.
“The next step should be meeting with places like UMass, St. Vincent’s, and Fallon Health,” he said.