Start a Free Produce Program for Farm-to-Community Pandemic Relief

Reader Contribution by Kristen Tool and Olsen Farm
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We own a small fourth-generation farm in a town of about 4,000 in Berkshire County, Mass. We keep honeybees, chickens, grow fruit, veggies and herbs – but most of our income comes from hands-on workshops and classes at the farm. When the pandemic hit in March we had to cancel all in-person programming and, like many across the country and around the world, had to scramble to figure out what to do next while also taking steps to stay safe and healthy ourselves.

After speaking with members of the local Council on Aging, we learned about the high need for fresh produce for our town’s senior population. Because of our town’s small size, we were not able to take advantage of state or federally funded pandemic food security programs. We did not have anywhere in town large enough to store fresh produce that could be dispersed through these programs.

Of our 4,000 residents, around 35% are over 55 years old. Access to fresh foods directly impacts our immune systems and overall health. With the pandemic and higher risk of illness for our older residents simple things like going to the grocery store became dangerous for these community members. This seemed like a problem we could help to solve.

We had the space to grow fresh foods and the knowledge- we just needed a plan.

Finding Funding

Now that we had the start of a plan, we needed to figure out the financials. We save a lot of seeds each year and have established perennial foods, like raspberries, blueberries, asparagus and rhubarb so we had a good start on expanding our growing capacity. Our plan was to fundraise to cover the cost of foods grown on the farm so we could provide free, fresh produce directly to local seniors each week.

We shared our idea during a Virtual Pitch Contest through the nonprofit EforAll — Entrepreneurship for All, a national nonprofit supporting new and existing businesses. Look them up for great resources in your area! — and were awarded 2nd Place along with a small grant to get the program started. We then held an on-line auction with farm goods and crafts to raise an additional $1,200. With the funds we had raised, we could distribute $200 of free, fresh produce weekly for 12 weeks.

Idea, check. Funding, check.

How We Organized

Now that we had the funds to move forward, it was time to get word out about our program. We decided to offer both weekly delivery and a distribution table, in order to reach as many seniors as possible.

Contacting seniors during the pandemic became another challenge. Churches, Town Hall and the public library, all spaces where events and programs are regularly shared, were closed. Council on Aging was not holding any programming and most seniors were not using Facebook or Instagram, where we do a lot of our publicity. We had to get creative. Through word of mouth with Council on Aging members, and social media targeted at family members of local seniors we spread the word about how to sign up for weekly produce deliveries and distribution. In no time, we had close to 10 households signed up, and a long list of community members offering to volunteer and help bring the program to life.

Volunteers were organized into weekly shifts at the distribution table, and weekly delivery drivers.Along with free fresh produce, we decided to distribute recipes prepared by a local nutritionist, and handmade cotton face masks each week as another way to help keep our neighbors safe during the health crisis.

Community Connections

Our farm is off the beaten path, and we wondered if it made sense to find a more central distribution location for visibility and accessibility. After some online networking, a local church in the center of town offered the use of their parking lot for weekly distributions.

Community members reached out and offered to donate “extra” veggies from their home gardens as well, both expanding the amount of produce we could distribute each week and creating wonderful community connections.

Other local farms contacted us about the program and offered to donate produce from their farms as well, further creating community and supporting other local businesses.

We quickly realized this program was providing much more than just free, fresh produce to seniors. It was providing safe social interactions for older residents who had been secluded during the pandemic. It was connecting local farms to the community in new ways during a health and economic crises. It was also providing ways for community members to be involved in an impactful way during very challenging and emotional times.

Unexpected Benefits

Our family has lived in town since the 1930s when our great grandparents immigrated from Norway and started farming here. When we started re-building the farm we had a lot of older community members sharing stories about what the farm was like generations ago. One of our Free Produce Program delivery members shared that she had grown up with our grandparents, and that it “felt like Christmas” every week when she received her produce delivery.

Another local senior came to the distribution table and shared she had spent the summer living on the farm the year after our family bought it, when she was about 4 years old. With no running water, and no electricity at that time, there was plenty of time to spend outside. She commented on seeing deer in the yard and telling her parents there were “reindeer outside”!

A former town resident learned about the program and offered to donate her beautiful dried flower artwork as gifts for the seniors we deliver to, and to be used for future fundraising. These connections to our family’s history are invaluable and have been and incredible unexpected benefit of pulling Free Produce Program together.

Moving Forward

This year has had plenty of challenges. Community is more important now than ever and helping those around us has become an even greater priority in these trying times.

We have our last deliveries and distribution this coming week and while we will miss the weekly socially distant community network that has developed over the past five months, the winter will give us time to plan and improve Free Produce Program for next year. We are working on gathering information from participants through surveys so we can make the program even better next year. Moving forward, it is our goal to expand Free Produce Program so we can provide free, fresh produce to more local seniors and people in need. We are networking with other local farms in neighboring towns to try and get the program started in other communities as well.

Free Produce Program is an easy model for farms and organizations to follow, and the positive impacts are immediate. People are looking for more ways to support their communities, and small-scale programs like this show direct results. Please reach out if you would like more information about how we set this community program up. Stay safe and healthy everyone!

Kristen Toolis co-owner of Olsen Farm in Lanesborough, Mass., where she works with her husband to revive 28 acres of a four-generation family farm by keeping bees, growing fruit, vegetables and herbs without the use of pesticides, raising poultry, cultivating mushrooms, leading workshops, and preparing plant remedies. She is the Secretary of the Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Associationand manages a crew of incredible teens who run the local farmers market through a nonprofit program, Roots Rising. Connect with Kristen atOlsen Farm on Facebook, on Instagram @olsen_farm, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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