Grow Food Northampton’s Services Sprouting for Local Residents

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 10, 2016, by Alexa Chryssovergis

Grow Food Northampton is still growing, with no signs of stopping.

For the past few years, the nonprofit that provides fresh, local produce to low-income community members has seen a steady rise in participation for its programs, and a recent $50,000 grant from the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation has allowed for even more room to grow.

Tuesday afternoon, a program officer from Harvard Pilgrim went on a whirlwind tour of some of Grow Food’s daily tasks to distribute the produce to those who otherwise can’t afford it.

“It’s sort of a broad net,” Pat James, community garden and food access manager, told program officer Ashley Hackett. “Everybody’s welcome here.”

Grow Food’s variety of services includes offering discounted land plots where low-income people can plant their own produce and save money on groceries, as well as providing food to the Northampton Senior Center and Northampton Survival Center, also at a reduced cost.

On Tuesday, James and Grow Food’s executive director, Clem Clay, showed Hackett the ropes. Hackett replaced the program officer who was working at Harvard Pilgrim when the group first gave Grow Food the grant money, Clay said, so this day was about showing Hackett how the money is being used. One of benefits of the grant is the expansion of Grow Food’s Giving Garden.

The group started Tuesday’s tour by walking around the Giving Garden, the food from which is delivered to the Survival Center when available. Today, the nonprofit delivered two sets of about 170 pounds of produce.

“It could happen more often now that we’re getting into the season,” James said, of the harvesting of produce.

The grant money also allowed Grow Food to install a cooler about two weeks ago, which gives the group more flexibility with times it can distribute produce.

It can be tricky for times to match up, James said, because the nonprofit’s volunteers are mostly free on Saturdays, but the Survival Center is closed on the weekends. The cooler definitely helps with those logistical difficulties, she said.

After walking around the Giving Garden, the group headed over to the Survival Center to make the second delivery of the day.

“Is this what you guys brought us?” asked Sarah Pease, program director at the food pantry. “Those tomatoes are gorgeous.”

Pease described Grow Food as a “multi-pronged approach” to distributing fresh produce.

The Northampton Survival Center provides food to about 2,000 families, or 4,000 people, each year. It used to be a guessing game as to whether or not there would be fresh produce, Pease said, but now Grow Food can provide that steady flow. Participants can always walk away with something, she said.

“The collaborations sort of keep evolving,” Pease said. “It just keeps growing and growing.”

The group also headed over to the Senior Center, where the program has grown from nine participants in 2011, its first year, to 70 participants this year.

Michele Dihlmann, a social worker at the center, said she expects even more participation next year.

“This provides 10 weeks of fresh vegetables for low-income seniors that otherwise wouldn’t have access,” Dihlmann said. “It’s a great opportunity for people that can’t afford to go to the farm.”

The program at the Senior Center only costs $10 for 10 weeks, during which subscribers receive $125 worth of produce. Grow Food subsidizes the additional cost that participants don’t pay, just like it does for many of its other programs, with help from the foundation grant.

Volunteers at the Senior Center help bag the produce every Tuesday, when Riverside Industries delivers it from Grow Food’s garden.

Tuesday’s offerings included kale, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, tomatoes, onions and some samples of summer squash bread that a program participant brought in for everyone.

Grow Food also is experimenting with a new program this fall based at Jackson Street School for qualifying families, similar to the one at the Senior Center.

The Red Bag program will be a good way to test community demand, and Grow Food would happily offer the program for a longer season if the need is there, Clay said.

The program is just one of many examples of the nonprofit’s expansion.

“There’s lots of different ways now that low-income people can get local food more affordably than if they went to the grocery store,” Clay said. “We’re doing as much as we can to make that happen.”