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Local Food for Every Table

By Kathleen Finlay

Covid is shining a spotlight on the challenge of getting local, fresh food to those in need - but may also be catalyzing the solutions.

Sitting in my living room-turned operational headquarters zooming with my team at Glynwood during the first days of the pandemic, we made the decision to increase our farm’s food donations to our local food pantries, even though it meant we would lose some of our precious revenue at a time when funds are bound to be super tight.

It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. That simple gut-driven act of responding to the looming, unprecedented need in our community has led to the development of a program here at Glynwood that has the potential to have long term impact well beyond the current crisis. Can we, on a regional scale, help get local, fresh, healthy food to those who need it most?

It’s not easy.

First - the ill-titled ‘emergency’ food system (hunger is a much more chronic condition than emergency implies) depends on donated food; they don’t typically purchase food. That means even the fresh food comes from pretty big players (large farms and retail outlets like big chain grocery stores that have leftover packaged produce), not the small to mid-sized farms we typically work with. Most of our farms are barely making ends meet, so they cannot afford to donate product, even though many want to.

Secondly, because perishable food is challenging to handle, packaged or processed food is moved through the hunger relief system in much larger quantities. It’s just easier. Fresh food doesn’t last long without cold storage, takes special packaging and damages easily. It makes sense that processed food makes up most of what is offered.

Add on to that, many local hunger relief organizations rely on volunteers who are over 60, so right now they don’t have an easy way to move fresh food, even if they had that refrigerated truck.

The Nourish NY program that the state announced last month is a step in the right direction by funding hunger relief organizations to purchase NY state fresh food. However, the selection of those farms fell on those food banks who turned to their known large-scale providers. Our network of small to midsize farmers was left out. 

Another challenge with the Nourish NY program is it buys food that is available right now, it doesn’t contract farmers for the season.  The season is just starting, and it’s been a cold, slow start at that. Small farms don’t have much product available right now. This is compounded by the fact that farmers, rightly so, are leaning into the huge uptick in demand for CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture, a subscription based option that allows consumers to buy a whole season’s worth of product). This means that even before the harvest has started, much of the product is pre-sold to those who can afford it, leaving little for those in need.

As part of our new initiative, called Local Food for Every Table, we are securing funds to contract farmers and  we are figuring out how to get that food to regional pantries. Basically, offering pantries a CSA model for their clients. To accomplish this, we are building a network of farmers and grassroots organizers from communities that are disproportionately harmed by hunger, poverty, and this pandemic, because people who confront a problem daily, best know its solution. It’s a win-win-win. The farmers get paid fairly and participate in a program that enacts their social values, while our community members get the local produce they want with its demonstrated health benefits. A recent study showed that medical costs are reduced by as much as 50% after just one season of subscribing to a CSA.

This work builds on our CSA is a SNAP program that we are simultaneously piloting this year. Working with five Hudson Valley farms and community partners, we have established a revolving loan fund to pre-purchase and subsidize 93 subscriptions for families who can use their food assistance (SNAP) dollars to pay for their shares as they receive their SNAP benefits throughout the season. Funded through a federal USDA grant, this is a first in the country and could easily be replicated and expanded if more funds are made available.

The pandemic is shining a light on the vulnerability of the food system and the challenges of feeding folks in need - we invite you to join us in helping us use this intense time to come up with solutions that will serve us well beyond the current crisis.

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