Relishing Their Growth: 3-Year Grant Planted Seeds for Success for Local Food Programs

The Recorder, August 19th, 2015, by Richie Davis

A three-year, $284,000 federal grant has yielded a bumper crop of results, agreed all four recipients of the community food program that the money funded.

State and federal officials who gathered Wednesday at Just Roots Community Farm and the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center got to see some of the high-school farm workers hired for the summer, sampled some Valley Chili and Asparagus Leek Rice soups the farm plans to begin canning at the processing center as an outgrowth of the effort, and heard about Greenfield Community College’s Farm and Food Systems program.

All were supported by the “Growing Together” U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.

Franklin County Community Development Corp., along with Just Roots, GCC and the Franklin-Hampshire Regional Employment Board, won the top-scoring grant to equip CDC’s Greenfield commercial kitchen with a freezer that could help quadruple its space for storing frozen produce from local farms and get more of that food into area schools while also training area students not only about how to grow food, but also how to use sustainable agricultural practices to literally feed the community.

The grant, with $105,000 going to Just Roots to hire a full-time farmer as its town-owned farm was getting started and $65,000 going to the CDC for the food processing center, helped plant the seed for other critical grants and loans, such as a new freezer that will help in storage of up to a quarter-million pounds of local vegetables and fruits for schools, hospitals and other institutions, said CDC Executive Director John Waite. A building to house that three-pallet-high freezer is planned for construction this fall at the Wells Street center, so it doesn’t have to use a commercial freezer in Westfield.
“Part of what we want to do is get more people to use our center and sell our vegetables,” said Waite, “having four collaborators helping with the promotion and education, plus many other partners, doing it. And it helped also leverage other funding, with a USDA Rural Development loan for $250,000 for a freezing operation. The funding leveraged overall has been federal, state, local, private and public. What started out as a $300,000 grant has really multiplied.”

At the same time, the collaborative project has helped spawn a partnership between GCC and the Franklin County House of Correction and helped the CDC work to get more local food into area schools, Waite said.

The food processing center — where state Reps. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Susannah Whipps Lee, R-Athol, and USDA and state officials saw a six-member crew making and packing Sunderland-based “Relish the Harvest” zucchini relish Wednesday — has already frozen this season’s strawberries and blueberries, and has been working on tomatoes and peaches for schools, hospitals and commercial buyers.

Through the grant, GCC food-system students have mentored high-schoolers at the farm, who have come from Greenfield, Gill, Turners Falls, Northfield and beyond, said Donna Dusell of the regional employment board.

Just Roots and the CDC are gearing up to begin producing “Just Soups” next week for an over-winter farm-share program as well as for sale at retail outlets and institutions, with help from a grant from Baystate Health Systems.

Nearly 70 percent of the Greenfield farm’s 160 Community Supported Agriculture shares are subsidized, said Just Roots Director Jessica Van Steenburg.

“These are people who never even thought about being part of a CSA,” she said. “The point of the freezer is to keep our food local year-round and extend our season. This is allowing people to have easy food that’s already made. It’s healthy and it’s got local food in it, so you’re continuing on with your habit, helping to increase your local vegetable intake over the winter months.”

She added, “Surely our organizations have grown together and our community has grown together as the result of our work and partnership.

The grant, Van Steenburg added, helped provide a “liveable wage” for a farmer, laying the groundwork for putting the former “town poor farm” back to community use.

Sandy Thomas, who has worked with GCC and now the University of Massachusetts to develop agricultural education programs, said that as a longtime Greenfield resident, “The collaboration that’s happened — the actual growing together — makes me feel so blessed to live here. … It’s just stunning.”
Scott Soares, who was state agriculture commissioner when the grant was announced and recently became state director of USDA Rural Development, called the level of collaboration in the grant program “fantastic. It epitomizes the opportunities that partnerships bring to really cultivate broad-scale economic development in rural communities.

He said his agency, which helped build the Food Processing Center 15 years ago, looks forward to helping the local food initiatives as they move forward.

Waite said he expects that through the Franklin County Food Council that was also created with the grant, he expects the collaborators might apply next year for a second phase of the work that it helped initiate.

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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