Rural living conference explores transportation, food access challenges

  • Leanne Brown, author of a cookbook for low income families called “Good and Cheap,” speaks during the “Innovations for Rural Living” conference Saturday at Greenfield Community College. RECORDER STAFF/SHELBY ASHLINE

  • Matt George, founder and CEO of the mass transit system BRIDJ, speaks during the "Innovations for Rural Living" conference Saturday at Greenfield Community College. RECORDER STAFF/SHELBY ASHLINE

  • Attendees of the "Innovations for Rural Living" conference held at Greenfield Community College Saturday converse about their experiences accessing transportation and healthy food in Franklin County. RECORDER STAFF/SHELBY ASHLINE

For the Gazette
Published: 11/20/2016 8:17:22 PM

GREENFIELD — At the time Leanne Brown wrote her book about eating well on low income, 44 million people received assistance from SNAP, and Brown recognized a common misconception — that the only way to get by with food assistance was to lead an unhealthy diet of boxed macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles or other high carbohydrate foods.

“People think that healthy food is not for them, so why even try?” she said. “That’s something we need to counter.”

Brown was one of two keynote speakers at a weekend conference to brainstorm solutions to the rural food and transportation access challenges that affect Franklin County.

Brown discussed how she was inspired to write a cookbook specifically for people living on a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) budget of around $4 per day.

Her cookbook was designed to provide healthy, highly flexible recipes that can change depending on what’s on sale at the grocery store. Brown feels the book helps eliminate the risk of trying a new recipe on a tight budget, and helps sooth anxieties that many low-income families face concerning how they can afford to eat well.

Plus, she said, being able to cook and provide for oneself is, in itself, empowering and emotionally uplifting.

“If it’s something that you can do for yourself, you can do anything,” she said.

Brown’s book achieved great success. There were more than 50,000 PDF downloads from Brown’s website in the first night the book was online, and she raised $144,681 through a Kickstarter campaign to print hard copies. Hunger, she said, is a topic close to the hearts of many.

“People really, really care about this issue,” Brown said.

About 80 residents gathered at Greenfield Community College Saturday for the daylong “Innovations for Rural Living” conference, which featured two morning keynote speakers and five afternoon working groups.

According to Susan Worgaftik, an organizer of the conference, the intent was to inspire “innovative approaches for well-known concerns” in rural areas which are “often an afterthought.”

“Putting new ideas on the table is the beginning of the process, not the end,” Worgaftik said. “It’s going to be up to us to make sure these issues are being responded to.”

The second speaker, Matt George, founder and CEO of the mass transit system BRIDJ, said, “The reason we’re all gathered here today is we do want to make these communities better for our families.”

What George did to improve the transportation issue was start BRIDJ, a mass transit system whereby a user installs an app that allows them to indicate their current location and required destination. BRIDJ drivers are able to pick up passengers within a five to seven minute walk from their home, and drop them off the same distance from their destination. Passengers with mobility issues are picked up directly at their homes.

George said the system saves 60 percent of time compared to a typical mass transit commute, though it costs about $4 per ride as opposed to $2.50.

“We need to think really holistically about how we can distribute both people and goods,” George said.

While doing so, George said it’s necessary to create systems that everyone can access, regardless of whether they have Internet or cell service, a smart phone or a credit card, as not to take dignity away from those without such technology.

George encouraged attendees to work diligently toward implementing resources like BRIDJ to solve the transportation problem in Franklin County.

“Folks want to see something done, but don’t feel they have the power to do it,” he said. “We can actually achieve a tremendous amount of progress in a very short amount of time and with very little resources if we commit.”

Both topics resonated with conference attendee Heather Tower, director of Northfield’s Council on Aging. Tower said she regularly sees Northfield residents struggle to cook while living alone, or have a difficult time finding transportation to medical appointments.

Going forward, Tower hopes to bring ideas from the conference to town officials and consumers, and build the necessary alliances to help combat the two issues.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “I’m encouraged that there are ways that this can happen.”




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