Love of business and service is motivation behind undergrad research fellow’s project

by Mitch Emmons

Auburn University’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship program provides the opportunity for students to learn and develop as researchers in areas that interest them most. For Erin Casolaro, one of the Fellows for 2020-21, her love of the business world and her passion for serving others motivated her to pursue a research project exploring the economic benefits of home gardening among elderly residents in rural areas of the state.

Casolaro, from Fairhope, Ala., is obtaining a double major in Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies in the College of Human Sciences, and Accounting from the Harbert College of Business. Her research project titled “Financial Implications of Personal Gardening Among Elderly in Rural Alabama,” is mentored by Dr. Alicia Powers, an Extension specialist and community health education coordinator of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management, and director of Strategy and Policy for the Hunger Solutions Institute, College of Human Sciences.

Currently a sophomore, Casolaro began her project as a freshman in 2019 and continued throughout the height of the COVID-19 “lockdown” when students were conducting all academic work remotely.

“I was staying a great deal of the time with my grandparents, who live near Auburn,” Casolaro said. “They have a large garden, and they were willing to be my study group for this project. I have always been involved in gardening, myself, so I proposed my project to my program mentor, and it developed from there.”

What started as a mini class project was developed into a highly detailed research project and formalized into a proposal that was awarded one of the prestigious undergraduate research fellowships. Casolaro followed her grandparents’ gardening activities for two years.

“I tracked their gardening activities through the growing season and harvest and documented their expenses, costs savings from preserving and consuming their harvests of fruits and vegetables, and income that they generated from selling surplus produce and fruits, and other variables,” Casolaro said.

Casolaro writes in her proposal abstract: “Food insecurity among the elderly population has plagued the United States and is often heightened in rural communities. It targets one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, but a potential solution is personal gardening. There have been numerous studies to indicate the physical, social, and mental detriments that come from food insecurity and a lack of proper nutrition that uniquely impacts the elderly population who are more at risk for major health conditions. Studies of benefits of personal and community gardening among this population have been conducted that indicate its ability to alleviate or slow common plights of the population, but few indicate the financial benefits that occur alongside hunger alleviation impacts. …”

What she has assembled is a highly detailed statistical analysis and picture of the positive benefits of cultivating a seasonal garden and the potential for replicating such a program as a broadly applied tool to battle food insecurity and improve access to good nutrition among vulnerable groups. And she says that serving others in a business way to help in anti-hunger efforts is her professional goal.

“I really love the business world, and I have greater passion for serving people and underserved communities,” Casolaro said. “I also learned through my work that I have a deep desire to help in anti-hunger efforts. I want to use my business and accounting skills as a tool of service. I think that long-term I would really hope to use my skills and passion by consulting for nonprofits and investing in communities to uplift them especially in financial development focusing on groups facing low access to nutritional food.”

The AU Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program offers awards that support projects in duration of a summer term up to one semester in length. Fellowships can be awarded for up to two years for selected students, and the program is open to students in every major.

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