Sponsored by UMass Dartmouth’s Charlton College Business Innovation Research Center, a dozen South Coast community food security advocates gathered to share their innovative ways of connecting those who lack access to healthy local food with local food sources, and the challenges they have faced.
Event coordinators Deirdre Healey of UMass Dartmouth's Leduc Center for Civic Engagement and Stephanie Perks of the Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network (SMFSN) had a Who's Who of South Coast food security advocates. Keynote speaker Ellen Parker, director of Project Bread, a Boston-based food advocacy nonprofit organization, kicked off the presentations.
Project Bread's Walk for Hunger began in 1969 as a way to raise money and awareness for the inequities in access to food. Now, over 40,000 people walk 20 miles on the first Sunday in May each year, raising between $3 to $5 million. The funds go towards the Urban Farming Initiative, the "Chefs in School" program, health center-based initiatives, and more.
"We're in an economic time where there are a lot of people making it, but close to struggling," Parker said. "There have to be a lot of different solutions for a lot of different people."
To Parker, community food security means making healthy food accessible to all.
"If you think of food just as food, you miss a lot," said Parker. "It's about community," she told the crowd of 125 people at the forum
In fact, Project Bread's recent strategic plan, From Food Insecurity to Community Food Insecurity, found many commonalities between communities.
"Mothers in Roxbury and Needham want the same thing: they want better food for their children."
South Coast innovations
"What if every student in grades 1 through 6 had access to a healthy garden at their school?" Adam Davenport asks.
Davenport, the garden manager for the Marion Institute Grow Education program, built gardens at twelve New Bedford public schools using a SMFSN Urban Agricultural Initiative grant. He views food security as understanding and respecting cultural diversity and using innovation to build efficiency in food delivery systems.
New Bedford also started New Bedford City Fruit with Massachusetts' Department of Agricultural Resources funding to increase use of fruit trees in the city as a community food resource. Thirty fruit trees were planted in the south end's Hazelwood Park. Like Davenport's schoolyard gardens, City Fruit will be planting fruit trees at city schools next year.
In Fall River, Mass In Motion's coordinator, Julianne Kelly, showcased that group's innovative way to increase access to healthy foods year-round. A cornerstone goal of the MIM program is to reduce childhood obesity.
Using existing food distribution sites as access points, MIM moved the farmers' markets indoors, and added freezer capacity to make healthy veggies and fruit accessible all year.
But Kelly said they found most people weren't familiar with cooking raw produce, an indication of how reliant we've become on processed food.
With the help of UMass Amherst, Kelly created "What's Cooking Fall River?," an online app with recipes and 15-minute cooking classes available 24/7, also available at gfrpartners.com and on YouTube.
Not to be outdone, New Bedford's MIM is increasing healthy food access by bringing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to areas where there are high pockets of poverty and limited access to transportation.
MIM coordinator Kimberly Ferreira collaborated with the New Bedford Housing Authority to bring CSAs from Apponagansett Farm and Round the Bend Farm in Dartmouth to two sites in the city. Bay Village and Presidential Heights were good fits as both had on-site coordinators, Ferreira said.
Ferreira said that SNAP benefits (federal food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) can be used to pay for CSAs, making it a double benefit for healthy local food sourcing. CSAs typically help farmers ensure income early in the season and a market during harvest.
Like Fall River, Ferreira said there was an educational component to the effort to help participants adapt to new foods and new habits.
"We held workshops pre-season to introduce the farmers," Ferreira said. "During the season, we held cooking and tasting demos to show how to prepare the vegetables. And in the fall, we held a farm-to-table supper and brought people to Round the Bend Farm so participants could see where their food came from."
This year the program distributed 3,300 pounds of fresh wholesome fruit and vegetables, Ferreira said. Next year, the goal is to create smaller CSA shares to accommodate elderly and small families.
Delivering farm fresh vegetables to the community is nothing new to Dan King, farm director of Sharing the Harvest Community Farm, a nonprofit volunteer organization. Begun by the United Way of Greater New Bedford, YMCA Dartmouth and the Southcoast YMCA in 2006, the farm provides healthy food to eighteen emergency feeding programs on the South Coast.
This past year, the five-acre farm was planted, grown, and harvested by 3,392 volunteer visits. And this year, the harvest included 17,000 cage-free, free range eggs provided to those in need from 100 donated chickens.
"The numbers are staggering. Over 700,000 people in Massachusetts are struggling with food security," King said. "People need to eat. Not just any food but healthy food."
The numbers were driven home by Victoria Grasela of the United Way of Greater New Bedford's Hunger Commission, begun in the 1990s.
"In 2016, over 350,000 pounds of food was distributed from local vendors. We ran thirty-four food drives in the community," Grasela said. "We deliver to eighteen sites in New Bedford, Fall River, and Wareham."
This year, United Way began an after-work fresh produce program at two sites in New Bedford open to anyone who can show earned income. Over 700 people were served.
United Way New Bedford partners with and funds multiple food programs including Sharing the Harvest Farm, City Fruit, Families Helping Families, Stamp Out Hunger postal food drive, and more.
But after Thanksgiving and the holidays, donations slow down.
"People think, 'I donated already.' But people are hungry year-round," Grasela said.
UMass Management Information Systems (MIS) students Shaktisingh Rijput, Reid Mello, Bryan Gwodz, and former MIS student Associate Professor Tim Shea of BIRC, decided what was needed was an efficient way to match sources with recipients – both on an individual and organizational level.
Find A Provider, the website they began developing in 2016, does just that. A regional database of providers connects people who need to know where to go to get food with information on location, hours of operation, available food, and eligibility requirements. Food providers such as restaurants and institutions who want to donate overages of fresh food can also use the site to find nearby food distribution access points.
Maurice Cyr, a UMass Dartmouth political science student, also saw a food security need and decided to fill it. Cyr began working at the Mobile Food Market while a student at Bristol Community College to ensure low-income students got the fresh food they needed to stay healthy in college. As director of the Mobile Food Market, he expanded it to other low-income Fall River residents. Finding the same need at UMass Dartmouth, he joined Arnie's Cupboard, a food pantry located on campus, as coordinator.
Likewise, Christine Sullivan, Coastline Elderly Services' grant coordinator, looks for ways to overcome barriers seniors face in accessing healthy food. She sees solutions such as bringing Cyr's Mobile Food Market to places seniors congregate, and building community gardens at senior housing as critical to providing food security.
"Although it's depressing to hear the statistics on the number of people going hungry," said Kendra Murray, SEMAP coordinator and forum sponsor, "it's inspiring to see so many people who want to get involved."
If you want to help, or if you need help, these links can make a difference:
Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network: semafoodsecurity.org
United Way of Greater New Bedford: volunteersouthcoast.org
SEMAP, South Coast CSA farms: semap.org
If you use the food photos, here's the caption:
Delicious locally-sourced hors d'oeuvres were prepared by Chef Jane Tierney, of UMass Dartmouth dining services. The lettuce is grown on campus (you can't get more local than that!) and is available year-round.