Holyoke collective putting food security on the table

  • Devon Whitney-Deal, a volunteer with Holyoke Food and Equity Collaborative, helps with other volunteers to glean a field of squash in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Neftalí Durán, a co-director of Holyoke Food and Equity Collective, helps collect squash in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nina Levison, a volunteer with Holyoke Food and Equity Collective, helps with other volunteers to glean a field of squash in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Devon Whitney-Deal, left, and other volunteers and members of the Holyoke Food and Equity Collective glean squash from a field in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Neftalí Durán, a co-director of the Holyoke Food and Equity Collective, helps with other volunteers to glean a field of sqash in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sofia Cincotta, front, and Annalise Clausen, both volunteers with the Holyoke Food and Equity Collective, help with other volunteers to glean squash from an already-picked field in Hadley. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Volunteer Devon Whitney-Deal glean squash from a in Hadley.

  • A United States Department of Agriculture map showing some food deserts in Holyoke. The USDA defines food deserts as low-income census tracts where a significant number or share of residents live more than a mile from the nearest supermarket — the portion of the map in red — or where residents lack vehicle access and live more than a half mile from a supermarket — the yellow portion. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service

Staff Writer
Published: 10/26/2020 9:19:52 AM

HOLYOKE — The sun was only just rising as a line of cars crawled along toward one of Hadley’s many fields. The cars’ masked occupants intended to take part in an activity that is likely as old as agriculture itself: gleaning.

Arriving at their chosen location, the gleaners looked out over a field that had already been harvested for its squash. However, there still remained plenty of the fruit scattered across the ground, and the nearly dozen gleaners began collecting the leftover crops that would otherwise go to waste. Annalise Clausen of Northampton was volunteering for her first gleaning Tuesday. As a farmer herself, she said there’s always more food after a harvest.

“There is always more food,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to get all of it, so it’s really just a logical step to have people come get the rest of it.”

The gleaners were with the Holyoke Food and Equity Collective, an organization created earlier this year that seeks to combat systemic racism by working to reduce health disparities and build food sovereignty in Holyoke and beyond. The group has been gleaning all around the region this fall, collecting thousands of pounds of apples, squash and plenty of other fruits and veggies to be distributed to those in need in Holyoke.

The inability to access quality and nutritious food continues to be a problem in the United States, where 10.5% of all households experienced food insecurity during 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For Black and Hispanic households, those numbers jump to 19.1% and 15.6%, respectively.

In Holyoke, swaths of the city are considered “food deserts,” according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means people have limited access to supermarkets or other places where they would have easy access to healthy food. In cities, the USDA defines food deserts as low-income census tracts where a significant number or share of residents live more than a mile from the nearest supermarket, or where residents lack vehicle access and live more than a half-mile from a supermarket.

That reality existed before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, decimating the economy and leaving many jobless. Since the pandemic began, food banks have reported increased demand and several studies have found dramatic increases in food insecurity across the state.

“The need has always been there,” said Cynthia Espinosa, one of the collective’s co-directors. An activist and academic who has worked on food system issues for several Holyoke organizations and the city, Espinosa said the pandemic has further exacerbated food insecurity in the Paper City.

“The pandemic has elevated that to the top of the list,” she said.

The collective has created several initiatives in the city, from mutual aid food distributions to building backyard gardens for 35 households. The group also helped connect people on food assistance benefits to the organic Windy Ridge Farm in Hawley, which operates a farm share with seedlings that can be purchased through the federal Healthy Incentives Program.

“They grew seedlings that are culturally relevant — people can make sofrito out of those plants,” Espinosa said. (Sofrito is a flavor base used in Puerto Rican cooking and other culinary traditions.)

The group’s work is organized around the idea of being an anti-racism collective, always trying to address structural inequities that exist in the food system.

“It’s so important to be really up front about racism,” said Kara Nye, another member of the collective.

Espinosa said Indigenous people and communities of color have practiced collectivism within the food system, but that the idea of food co-ops and similar efforts have become associated with white and wealthy communities. The Holyoke Food and Equity Collective wants to change that narrative, she said.

Some from the collective have also participated in efforts to change policy in the city to better address food insecurity.

At a joint meeting in July of the City Council’s Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board, several involved with the collective spoke during the public comment period in support of an ordinance that would expand the ability of city residents to keep backyard hens and facilitate the permitting process for community gardens.

“As someone that has been working on food justice on the national level, it’s really disheartening to know and experience every day that a lot of our community still experiences food insecurity,” Neftalí Durán, another of the collective’s co-directors, said during the meeting. “With food insecurity skyrocketing in Hampden County … we don’t know what the future holds and it’s really important that we are prepared. Especially for those residents of Holyoke who are not only food insecure, but they live way below the poverty level.”

The proposed ordinance drew a lot of support from around the community during public comment, though it’s unclear what the ordinance will look like when it comes before the full City Council.

At an Oct. 13 meeting of the Ordinance Committee, once the public hearing was closed, several councilors expressed reservations about expanding access to backyard chickens, citing health and nuisance concerns. Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon, for example, voiced concern about illnesses like salmonella, said that chickens should be allowed only at single-family homes, and suggested that neighbors should be able to participate in a hearing process if somebody on an abutting property wants to keep chickens.

“I really think we have not seen people having food shortages, and we’re going into the winter season now,” Vacon said, adding that gardens wouldn’t be easy to expand during this time of year. “I really think the timing of this is not good.”

Beyond the raised beds the collective has built and food it has gathered and distributed, the group has plans underway as winter approaches. Those include a winter farmers market, a diaper and formula drive in the city, and prepping to build more gardens in the spring — work that the collective says is aimed at building a more sustainable food system that will last through the pandemic and beyond.

COVID-19 “does put a sense of urgency on some work, in terms of providing food and access to resources quickly,” Nye said. “But at the same time we’re thinking about this long term and not just as a pandemic-related project.”




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