One bag at a time: A look at Grow Food Northampton’s Community Food Distribution Project

  • Pat James, with Grow Food Northampton, loads a car with food at the Northampton Survival Center to deliver to The Lumberyard apartment complex in downtown Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sara Schieffelin, reaches for a crate of food from Anna Taylor, both volunteers with Grow Food Northampton, as they load a van with food at the Northampton Survival center to deliver to Meadowbrook. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ana Flores, a resident at Hampshire Heights, picks up food delivered to her home through the Community Food Distribution Project, an initiative of Grow Food Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Eva Fierst reaches for a crate of food from Sara Schieffelin, both volunteers with Grow Food Northampton, as they load a van with food at the Northampton Survival center to deliver to Meadowbrook. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Andrea Dustin, a food distribution assistant and Liz Horn, a volunteer with Grow Food Northampton, deliver food at Hampshire Heights. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Anna Taylor, a volunteer with Grow Food Northampton, loads a van with food at the Northampton Survival center to deliver to Meadowbrook. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 12/1/2020 4:35:28 PM

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of monthly columns designed to highlight ways in which Grow Food Northampton seeks to address a variety of food issues in the region.

The Thursday before Thanksgiving, the loading area of the Northampton Survival Center was a scene. A small band of volunteers frantically bagged fresh turnips and salad mix in one corner of the lot while, near the loading door, another volunteer dragged pallet after pallet of crates filled with pasta, peanut butter, canned soups and meat and veggies out of the warehouse to be loaded into cargo vans.

One volunteer struggled to her car with boxes of bananas; a couple of little kids team-lifted a box of salad greens into the bed of a pick-up. Yet another volunteer was busy filling her backseat with Thanksgiving bags — special brown bag deliveries full of things like cranberry sauce and corn muffin mix and pecans.

Pretty soon it became clear, however, that two cargo vans plus a pickup truck and several minivans were not going to hold enough to get everything where it needed to go.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar scene. The Community Food Distribution Project, a joint venture between Grow Food Northampton and the Northampton Survival Center (and Pioneer Valley Community Action), has been delivering food and fresh produce to four different low-income family housing sites on Tuesdays, and seven different sites (mostly public senior housing) on Thursdays since April, in an effort to provide emergency COVID support to those who have the most difficulty accessing the Survival Center’s shorter pandemic hours.

Every day presents its own set of logistical challenges. Sometimes there aren’t enough volunteers; sometimes there are too many. Sometimes there are enough volunteers but not enough cargo space. Sometimes it’s raining. Sometimes it’s deathly hot. Sometimes the farm produce doesn’t show up. Sometimes the Survival Center, which has its own set of logistical dilemmas to solve, has to work overtime to make sure everything is bagged and ready to go on time. Sometimes, especially lately, it’s bitterly cold.

I’ve been Grow Food Northampton’s coordinator of the Community Food Distribution Project since July, but even after four months, it still boggles my mind how much time, effort, cooperation and planning are needed to make sure everyone who needs food in our town is fed. It’s alternately heartening (look at how many people and organizations are willing to step up for their community!) and depressing (because look at how many people and organizations are needed just to make sure people don’t go hungry in the wealthiest nation in the world!).

But despite moments of skepticism and occasional despair, I find that the more I learn about the many different people and efforts currently mobilized to improve the quality of life for everyone in our corner of the world, the better I feel about the odds of our food system improving, equity being possible, and the beauty and viability of the land we live on not being destined to go to hell.

It occurred to me, however, that not everyone has a job that gives them such a front row view of the creativity and hard work being devoted every day to moving us toward a world where everyone in our town and its surroundings has equal access to healthy food. The various personalities and people and organizations behind the region’s safety nets remain largely vague for a good portion of us.

A little boy who volunteers with the CFDP every Tuesday and Thursday with his mom and sister keeps referring to Grow Food Northampton, adorably, as the Food Bank; my father-in-law, who delivers meals for Manna, is befuddled by the number of different food access agencies in town and how they fit together.

Until I took this job, I myself had no idea where any of the senior housing in town was; CFDP volunteers, when we deliver on Thursdays, are always saying, “Hunh! I never even knew this was here!”

So I would love this new column to be a place where readers can catch a glimpse of work that goes mostly unseen but has a great impact on whether or not we can consider ourselves a moral society. That sounds kind of grim, but I promise that while there’s endless room for improvement in our services, our systems, and our efforts to change a food system that leaves so many out, there’s also so much joy along the way.

Just ask the CFDP volunteers who finished off that Thursday delivery, having moved enough food for two weeks, for over 200 individuals. (A Survival Center volunteer with an extra van stepped in to save the day.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier bunch of people. Everyone was smiling beneath their masks.

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