Update on Co-Act’s “Food Net”
First a little history: In January 2009, Co-Act held the first collaborative meeting of managers and directors of local meal sites. Common needs and issues were discovered, such as running out of food at the end of the month and a
lack of fresh produce and protein. It was not a shortage of food that was the main problem, nor was it physical facilities, willing personnel, or even creativity. Instead, it was found that the root issue had to do with “systems,” and the solution required collaboration as well as new networks of access and distribution. This community-born solution became the catalyst that inspired and launched the Berkshire Co-Act “Food Net,” a grass-roots initiative which has been dedicated to the food security and nutritional needs of central and southern Berkshire County. In 2009, Co-Act volunteers collected and transported 6,000 pounds of fresh organic produce to 14 local food pantries and meal sites. That quantity increased to 9,000 pounds in 2010.
Our plan for 2011 is to increase the numbers of community gardens, school gardens, and private gardens for low income households, and, in addition, to educate more school children and adults in food growing, cooking, nutrition, and food preservation. The plan weaves together 14 separate food-related components to create a new local, sustainable system that greatly improves nutritional access, health education, community engagement, and entrepreneurship. The main beneficiaries will continue to be the food insecure of central and southern Berkshire County who frequent the 33 meal sites and pantries.
Food Net Participants
West Side Farm Project
Project Sprout, Monument Mountain High School
Montessori School, Great Barrington
Conte School, Pittsfield
Pittsfield Public Schools
Woven Roots Farm
Peace Valley Farm
Indian Line Farm
Under Mead Farm
First United Methodist, Harvest Table
St. Stephen’s Parish
The Salvation Army, Pittsfield Corp.
Christian Center of Pittsfield
First Congregational Church
People’s Pantry, Great Barrington
Dalton Food Pantry
WIC, Great Barrington
VFW Pantry Lanesboro
First Baptist Church, Pittsfield
United Methodist Church, Lenox
The Food Net Components
The “Westside Farm Project,” located in a low-income neighborhood of western Pittsfield, was begun in 2008 by Thom Pecoraro, a Co-Act member. In 2010, the garden was expanded under the Wyomanock Center, with the help of a garden manager and hundreds of volunteer hours provided by local low-income residents, to three plots, totaling over 7,000 square feet, where 3,000 pounds of vegetables were grown, the majority of which was delivered to meal sites by the “Food Net.” The “Westside Farm Project,” which has become a central gathering and learning place for dozens of neighborhood children throughout the summer, will be the example for more community gardens in the future.
“Project Sprout,” located at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, is an example of a successful student-run school garden–students began
and maintain a garden that produces over 100 pounds of fresh produce weekly during the season. During the school year, the produce goes to the cafeterias of all three district schools for all the students to benefit, but, during the summer, the majority is delivered to meal sites by the “Food Net.” The garden has become a significant learning tool for the students, who teach other students and pass on the knowledge. We intend to use this example to expand the program to Pittsfield schools and the Montessori School in Great Barrington.
Private Gardens for Low-Income Households
During our growing season in 2010, the “Food Net” donated 40 starters that went into new and expanded gardens for low-income families, who were trained at the community gardens. We helped install several gardens at Section 8 houses, and the six families who participated had plenty of produce throughout the season. We intend to expand this program to 12 households in Berkshire County in 2011 and to another 30 gardens in 2012. The “Food Net” will help prepare the gardens and provide compost and tools to participants.
Farmers’ “Second Harvest”
During 2010, our “Second Harvest” program (still on-going) will yield about 4,000 pounds of produce. One of our “Food Net” participants explains what the “Food Net” has meant to her. According to Jen Salinetti of Woven Roots Farm in Lee, “In the past, we used to compost our unsold vegetable starts and crops that were unfit for resale. We’ve always wanted to reach out to community kitchens and food pantries and Co-Act is now making it possible. It feels so good to know that people in need are able to plant community gardens and eat fresh produce thanks to the collaboration between our farm and the Food Net.” We are looking to expand farmer involvement, increasing acquisitions to 8,000 pounds next year.
“Grow an Extra Row”
Each private garden in our initial program donated 30 pounds of fresh produce weekly. The program used fliers describing the program to attract participants. These were dropped off at all the garden supply stores in our area. Gardeners get the great satisfaction of serving the neediest population by working in their back yards. We intend to expand this program to 20 private gardens. This would make an additional 600 pounds of fresh produce available in the network per week.
Farmer Labor Pool
The community and school garden programs require a significant amount of labor. We rely heavily on volunteers that are trained by our community and school garden managers. The volunteers include teenagers and persons who are recovering from addictions. The more experienced individuals will become part of a labor pool to help with our gleaning program with farms, but they will also become a trained labor pool to help out farmers who have surges of staff needs corresponding to the growing cycles.
Thus far, Berkshire Organics has been a regular weekly supplier of about 200 pounds of produce per week. There are several other food distributors we would like to network with. Restaurants, resorts, and grocery stores are also part of this food network through the “Buy One, Leave One” program. In our initial program for grocery stores, the “Food Net” collected 4,200 pounds of dry and canned food. Fourteen restaurants have also participated in this program, and we intend to expand this food source.
Plant Starter Program
During our first two years, our gardens experimented with a variety of produce for our meal sites. We found that certain crops, such as the lettuces, did very well and that crops, such as kale, when dried, provide excellent winter nutrition as an addition to soups. In 2010 we supplied about 200 starters to all of our garden projects. We intend to expand this program.
We are seeking funds to purchase solar driers. Our experiments with two small dryers in 2010 led us to this approach. We want to teach food preserving classes to the pantries and meal sites throughout our region.
Extending the Growing Season
Greenhouses and simple hoops are ways to extend our New England growing season by several months. “Project Sprout” was successful in their efforts in 2009, where they are presently in use. Although the yields are less, using these would allow us to support prioritized meal sites like WIC and the prepared supper sites.
Meal Site Development
In Berkshire County there are three types of meal distributions: the prepared meal sites, pantries, and brown bag distributions. In a survey of the Berkshire meal sites, the Lanesboro VFW pantry was ranked highest. Their approach included a system of open shelves where people were allowed to choose items themselves with certain amounts allocated for each category. The “Food Net” has been supporting this approach in other pantries; however, there are several pantries that need some funds, which we are making efforts to raise, in order to renovate the space to accommodate this approach.
“Food Net” Goals and Intended Outcomes
- Enlarge and strengthen the local food network, consisting of community, school, and private gardens, farmers, produce distributors, meal sites, pantries, and WIC sites, among others.
- Reduce hunger and improve nutrition for our region’s food-insecure population through increasing organic produce donations that are delivered to meal sites and food pantries from the 2010 amount of 9,000 pounds to 15,000 pounds in 2011 and 20,000 pounds in 2012.
the number of farmers participating in the “Second Harvest” from the current six to 14 in 2011 and 20 in 2012 and reduce the waste of high quality, organic produce.
- Expand the number of school gardens and community gardens from the current two to six in central and southern Berkshire County.
- Expand the number of Section 8 housing gardens from the present six to 12 in 2011 and to 30 in 2012.
- Provide DBT machines to the farmers’ markets in Berkshire County that don’t already have them, to increase availability of fresh produce to SNAP users and to increase sales for small market gardeners.
- Provide cooking, food preservation, and nutrition education to pantries, meal sites, and school cafeterias, as well as to community and private gardeners.
- Extend the growing season of the gardens.
- Provide nutritious greens and root vegetables for the meal sites during the winter through the use of solar dryers and a root cellar.
- Provide an entrepreneurial enterprise for youth involving solar drying of organic produce, particularly kale to be used in soups, and other food preserving enterprises.
- Improve meal sites and food pantries through adding, re-structuring, and moving pantries, as needed.
- Expand the program “Buy One, Leave One” and the restaurant, grocery, and resort donation program in order to provide more food, especially protein food, in the winter to the meal sites and food pantries.
- Continue to engage local youths from low-income communities at school and in their neighborhoods, including working with troubled youths and halfway houses.
- Increase the available labor pool for local farmers and growers and provide income to low-income youths and adults through seasonal labor on local farms.
- Teach social responsibility and empowerment through the “Food Net” program of giving.
- Improve the mental health of our low-income residents, including children, who participate in the gardening projects. Results should include an increased sense of well-being, pride in accomplishment, a feeling of increased self-sufficiency, empowerment, and expanded horizons, and a feeling of connection to the earth and each other.
What you can do…
If after reading this update on the “Food Net,” you feel you would like to contribute, either through the donation of money or the donation of time, we would greatly appreciate it. Please get in touch with: