Valley Bounty: Fruit Fair Brings Relief to Food Desert in Chicopee

Samaita (Sam) Newell is a first-generation immigrant from India. She met Jared Newell as a student in the five-college area. Following graduation and getting married, the young couple dreamed of buying a farm with a store.

Without collateral, their dreams of buying land pushed farming beyond their reach. Newell says, “We needed to buy a business with real estate attached to it, so we could collateralize it. We were in our mid-20s when we started looking at Fruit Fair. We didn’t have experience with commercial real estate and jumped in half blind.”

Fruit Fair opened as a family-owned farm store in Chicopee in 1936 that enjoyed a loyal following until the owner’s passing around the year 2000. An interim owner took over, running it on a convenience store model until the Newells bought it in late 2019.

The renovations were dramatic. Newell continues, “Only later, we realized how bad of shape the store was in. We figured out it needed a lot of updating and maintenance. Since then, we’ve been fixing and updating fixtures, appliances, and the building.”

The couple replaced the floors and repaired the roof of the store. They added new signs that evoke the original signs. They added to the store layout a hot food buffet and a cooler for beer and wine.

In 2019, Chicopee Center met the criteria of being a food desert, as defined through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This reflects an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food for reasons like income and transportation.

The larger supermarkets in Chicopee are not a walkable distance, four miles away. Bus routes, timing, and policy regarding how shopping bags must fit on the passenger’s lap or under the seat can be a deterrent for grocery shopping by bus.

As the young couple added new, efficient refrigerator cases, they brought in produce from local farms and vastly increased the varieties and quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables available to people in the community.

In April 2020, the world shut down for COVID-19. Public transit stopped, and the supply chain came to a halt. She notes, “We asked ourselves, how do we manage this? We decided to fill the gaps in our supply chain locally.” Because the Newells had already begun sourcing from local businesses, the couple leaned into those relationships. They got creative and added sourcing local goods like paper goods and packaging, filling their store while the shelves of the big box stores were empty.

Newell adds, “We rented a U-Haul and picked up food and goods to sell in the store. We sourced paper towels and toilet paper from Mansfield Paper in West Springfield, and we got carbon neutral food packaging material from a company in Holyoke. We never imagined there was a local company for paper goods.”

The surreal time of COVID-19 inspired creativity and collaboration with other businesses. Newell says, “Businesses surfaced that we never knew for sourcing. People bought the local food and products we offered during COVID. We just rode that wave and never let it go. As bad as COVID was, it was a lifeline for Fruit Fair.”

Hyperlocal sourcing through Chicopee Provisions supplies the store for the local Polish community with Millie’s Pierogi, Blue Seal Kielbasa, and Domin’s horseradish. The store offers a large array of Spanish ingredients and products for the local Puerto Rican community as well. The store purchases from local bakeries, including Chmura’s Rye Bread from Indian Orchard, Bernadino’s rolls, and pastry from Koffee Kup Bakery, both in Chicopee.

During the year, Marty’s Local supplies Fruit Fair with local products. As the growing season unfolds, the store gets deliveries directly from farms on full pallets. The season starts with fiddleheads from Joe Czajkowski Farm and continues with microgreens from Dusty Goat Farm, corn from Sapowsky Farm, mushrooms from Mycoterra Farm, and many more.

The store accepts SNAP/EBT. The program has a monthly dollar limit to these benefits for each user. While working the register, Newell observed that customers would load up their shopping carts, but when the cost approached their limit, they would put back all the fresh produce and meat—the more expensive items on the belt—in favor of the cheaper packaged, canned, or boxed goods.

Newell and her husband asked, “What can we do so people eat healthier? They can get canned goods at a food pantry, but they can’t get fresh food.” She continues, “We started artificially subsidizing the produce, meat, and deli departments so people can afford to buy fresh food. We’ve seen sales of fresh food more than triple since we first started. The sales from grocery, frozen, beer and wine offset the labor-intensive fresh foods.”

Through Fruit Fair’s offerings, Chicopee Center is no longer labelled a food desert by the USDA, and Sam and Jared Newell intend to keep it that way. To further their mission, the couple is building greenhouses on top of their store. The site work and easement, solar study, and engineering is complete.

Two years ago, the couple applied for and received a Food Security Infrastructure Grant (FSIG) for the greenhouses; however, the price of steel has doubled since the project began. If needed, they will use beds on the roof this summer until they can fund the greenhouses they envision. They plan a dumbwaiter to move products from the roof to the store.

Motivation for growing food on the roof comes from expanding access to healthy food. Newell continues, “Our store has the highest percentage in Massachusetts of SNAP/EBT sales, at 34%. This reflects our artificially lowering the price of fresh food to make it affordable, but we could help customers stretch their food budgets if we could grow fresh produce and apply for and accept HIP, so the people worried about getting the tomato can buy it.”

The goal is to have at least two of the greenhouses up by winter, extending the growing season. They envision offering CSA-style boxes of local food, including local produce from their greenhouses, local farms, and local producers. Newell concludes, “What brings me satisfaction, is that people with no other option to buy fresh food, can come to our store and eat healthy.”

Lisa Goodrich is Communications Coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, (CISA). Fruit Fair is open daily, 7am to 9pm at 398 Front Street in Chicopee. To learn more about Fruit Fair including their weekly specials, check, Facebook, and Instagram.