I think everyone would rather forget the early days of the pandemic – the isolation and upheaval and downright fear that, in some cases, halted life as we knew it forever. Everyone has lost something to COVID, whether it be a loved one or a milestone or a relationship altered by circumstances, and I would never belittle those losses with a witty silver lining. And at the same time, a few years later, I find myself encouraged by a few things that have been forged in the face of new challenges.
One of these is the Community Food Distribution Project, which I joined as a volunteer in the summer of 2020 and later coordinated for the first year. The CFDP, as it is affectionately known, was launched as a partnership between Grow Food Northampton and the Northampton Survival Center – with much support from other local organizations – in March 2020 when COVID forced the Survival Center to close its building for safety reasons. In just five days, Grow Food Northampton and the Survival Center were able to devise an outdoor food pickup and delivery system for over 4,000 customers in family and senior housing, with Grow Food adding fresh local produce to the mix of dry goods and other items produce to support local farmers even in times of need. (Later, as the weather turned colder, the program switched to an all-door-to-door delivery model.) In a very strange time of uncertainty and loneliness, the weekly distributions were a kind of anchor for everyone involved, including the week-by-week volunteers at everyone Weather.
But this particular food distribution model was designed for times of need, and now, thank God, COVID is less pandemic than endemic — still a worrying disease, but without being so deadly and all-consuming that you can only see a day or two ahead. Looking ahead to the longer term, Grow Food Northampton’s food access program is currently focused less on food delivery and more on creating a local food system that is accessible to all, as well as building a community around the joys of gardening and cooking . (The Survival Center continues to deliver groceries to 325 people across the city weekly, courtesy of DoorDash’s nonprofit arm.)
Grow Food Northampton’s Food Access Manager, Erin Ferrentino, has worked on multiple fronts to advance this mission. Since the dissolution of the CFDP partnership at the end of October, Grow Food Northampton’s Food Access staff have continued to set up a fortnightly mobile market table in family accommodation (Hampshire Heights, Meadowbrook, Florence Heights) and senior citizens’ accommodation. The market features produce that Grow Food Northampton bought from local farmers, as well as other locally produced foods such as eggs, yoghurt, tortillas – the kind of foods you’ll find at the Tuesday Market or Winter Market – free of charge to attendees.
How is that possible? Because of the pandemic, “major nonprofits and the federal government have made food access a real priority,” says Ferrentino, noting that Grow Food Northampton has been able to secure grants to carry the mobile market through this winter and beyond. However, like most people who work in this field, they want access to food — especially access to local food — to become a self-sustaining cycle, rather than a grant- or donation-funded endeavor. Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and its local-incentive-buying counterpart — the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which compensates customers who use SNAP benefits to purchase groceries from participating local farm vendors — are currently trying , to close the gap in accessibility to the store and the farmers’ market, although real justice still remains an issue.
Food equity is one of the cornerstones of the whole Grow Food Northampton philosophy; Community is another, and this is where I think the GFN wing for food access really shines, with the mobile market being just one of its facets. Over the past year, Ferrentino’s Food Access Advisory Committee (FAAC) and Grow Food Northampton, whose members come from both family and senior housing backgrounds, have organized a series of gatherings aimed at providing low-income residents and isolated seniors with opportunities for greater community Offer . Applepalooza, for example, was held at the McDonald House, one of Northampton’s retirement homes, last autumn and featured native apple varieties and a cider press – and was reportedly well attended and enjoyed by residents.
However, it is clear that harvest events are just the beginning for the Food Access team. Future plans include establishing and/or expanding community gardens in public housing, for which the FAAC itself wrote and secured a $25,000 grant. Community potlucks, a beautiful staple of pre-COVID life in Hampshire Heights due to the community gardens that exist there, are set to return to the neighborhood in conjunction with the free seedling distribution that Grow Food Northampton organizes in the spring.
A lack of education, as Ferrentino points out, is also a barrier to food access, and with that in mind, the food access team and Hampshire Heights’ Kia Aoki collaborated on some YouTube cooking videos to go with the holiday packages distributed on the biweekly Market table this week. The boxes (which included whole chickens from Reed Farm in Sunderland, among other things) included a recipe card and a QR code linking users to Aoki’s videos on how to make apple galette, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.
If you have a moment, check out these videos (https://www.growfoodnorthampton.org/13988-2/). A smart, warm, and dedicated teacher, Aoki clearly loves food and wants everyone to be able to make good fluffy mashed potatoes and rustic apple galette. Shot in her home kitchen in Hampshire Heights, the videos are cozy, uncomplicated, inviting and fully accessible.