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Fork & Spade with Francie Lin: Building community access to local food

By Francie Lin, GFN Writer-in-Residence

I think everyone would rather forget the early pandemic days — the isolation and upheaval and outright fear that shut down life as we knew it, in some cases permanently. Everyone lost something to COVID, whether it was a loved one or a milestone or a relationship altered by the circumstances, and I would never diminish those losses with some chipper silver-lining statement. And at the same time, a couple of years on, I find myself heartened by a few things that were forged in the face of new challenges.

One such thing is the Community Food Distribution Project, which I joined as a volunteer in the summer of 2020 and later coordinated through its first year. The CFDP, as it is affectionately known, launched in March 2020 as a partnership between Grow Food Northampton and the Northampton Survival Center — with much support from other local organizations — when COVID forced the Survival Center to close its building for safety reasons. In just five days, Grow Food Northampton and the Survival Center managed to work out a system of outdoor grocery pick up and delivery for over 4,000 clients in family and senior housing, with Grow Food adding fresh local produce to the mix of dry goods and other produce as a way of supporting local farmers in a time of need as well. (Later, when the weather turned cold, the program pivoted to an all-doorstep-delivery model.) In a very strange time full of uncertainty and loneliness, the weekly distributions were a kind of anchor for everyone involved, including the volunteers who showed up week after week, in all weather.

But that particular food distribution model was designed for emergency times, and now, thank goodness, COVID is less pandemic than endemic — still a disease of concern but without being so fatal and all-consuming that one can only look a day or two ahead. With an eye on the long-term future, Grow Food Northampton’s food access program currently focuses less on food delivery and more on creating a local food system that is accessible to everyone, as well as on building community around the joys of gardening and cooking. (The Survival Center continues to do weekly grocery delivery to 325 individuals in town, courtesy of DoorDash’s nonprofit arm.)

Erin Ferrentino, GFN Food Access Manager

Erin Ferrentino, Grow Food Northampton’s food access manager, has been working on a number of different fronts to advance this mission. Since the CFDP partnership dissolved at the end of October, Grow Food Northampton’s food access staff has continued to set up a mobile market table every other week at family housing (Hampshire Heights, Meadowbrook, Florence Heights) and senior housing. The market offers produce purchased by Grow Food Northampton from local farmers as well as other locally produced food like eggs, yogurt, tortillas — the kind of food you find at the Tuesday Market or Winter Market — at no cost to participants.

How is that possible? Because of the pandemic, “big nonprofits and the federal government have really prioritized food access,” Ferrentino says, noting that Grow Food Northampton has been able to secure grants to carry the mobile market through this winter and beyond. Like most people working in the field, though, they would like to see food access — particularly access to local food — become a more self-sustaining loop rather than a grant- or donation-funded endeavor. Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and its buy-local incentive counterpart — the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which reimburses clients who use SNAP benefits to buy food from participating local farm vendors — currently seek to bridge the accessibility gap at the store and the farmers’ market, though true equity still remains an issue.

Food justice is one of the cornerstones of Grow Food Northampton’s philosophy as a whole; community is another, and here, to my mind, the GFN food access wing really shines, the mobile market being just one of its facets. Over the past year, Ferrentino and Grow Food Northampton’s Food Access Advisory Committee (FAAC), whose members are drawn from both family and senior housing, have organized a number of gatherings aimed at providing lower-income residents and isolated seniors with opportunities for greater community. Applepalooza, for instance, was held this past fall at McDonald House, one of Northampton’s senior housing properties, and featured native apple varieties and a cider press — and was, by all accounts, well-attended and a lot of fun for residents.

It’s clear, however, that harvest events are just the beginning for the food access team. Future plans include establishing and/or expanding community gardens at public housing, for which the FAAC itself wrote and secured a $25,000 grant. Community potlucks, a lovely staple of pre-COVID life at Hampshire Heights as a result of the existing community gardens there, are slated to return to the neighborhood in conjunction with the free seedling distribution that Grow Food Northampton organizes in the spring.

Kia Aoki filming a cooking video

Lack of education, as Ferrentino points out, is also a barrier to food access, and in light of that, the food access team and Hampshire Heights resident Kia Aoki collaborated on a few YouTube cooking videos to go along with the holiday boxes that were distributed at the biweekly market table this week. The boxes (which included whole chickens from Reed Farm in Sunderland, among many other things) contained a recipe card and a QR code that connects users to Aoki’s videos for making apple galette, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.

If you have a moment, you should check out those videos. Aoki is a smart, warm, engaging teacher who clearly loves food and wants everyone to be able to make good fluffy mashed potatoes and rustic apple galette. The videos are filmed in her home kitchen at Hampshire Heights, and are homey, straightforward, welcoming and fully accessible.

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