As the coronavirus continues to ravage links in the supply chain, food banks across the state are struggling to feed hungry families while keeping staff and volunteers safe. But a new partnership between the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and local farmers promises to increase access to fresh, organic produce at a time when it's needed most.
Food banks and pantries across the country have closed their doors or cut hours, but executive director Andrew Morehouse's crew is working hard. “We've already seen a 23% increase in the demand for food,” he said from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Hatfield office, “and that was only in the month of March.”
In a typical month, Morehouse said his food bank supplies 90,000 people. 12 million pounds are distributed each year, 30% of which is fresh produce. He predicts demand will continue to skyrocket along with the surge of unemployment claims. That's why the food bank's just-cemented partnership with the state and the towns of Hadley and Amherst, which secures 142 acres of farmland, couldn't have come at a better time.
“We need to get food out to people who are hungry – ideally healthy food,” Morehouse said, “and there's no better healthy food than that which we grow right here in the Pioneer Valley, the breadbasket of the Commonwealth.”
Now two contracted farmers (from Atlas Farm and Joe Czajkowski Farm) will be able to harvest tens of thousands of pounds more for the state's most vulnerable communities, including the elderly, veterans and people with disabilities.
While the new farm is the food bank's second (the first has been operating since 1992), John Lebeaux, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) said the arrangement is novel.
“They will lease out these farms to growers, but the rent payments will not be made in money,” he explained, “it'll be made in harvest.”
MDAR is the state agency that distributes funds through the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program. Last fiscal year Lebeaux said the Baker administration's budget appropriated $20 million for the state's four regional food banks.
It took a variety of partners to bring this multi-year project to fruition, Lebeaux said, including the Kestrel Land Trust that purchased the 142 acres in October and held it until the food bank was ready to buy the property. Lebeaux called this a timely "win-win," and not only for hungry families.
“But also to the mission of the the food bank,” he said, “and it's very supportive to the activities of these commercial farmers who have to make a living in order to do what they do.” Especially as food systems continue to be upended by the coronavirus crisis.
The farmers will also sell their organic vegetables to high-poverty school districts, and eventually the food bank will help run a community farm with an educational component to teach kids about agriculture, nutrition and hunger issues. “We're always interested in increasing access to food,” Lebeaux added, “and we're also always interested in protecting farmland in the Commonwealth.”
While the food bank's newly acquired fields aren't producing food yet, executive director Andrew Morehouse said they will be come July.
“And honestly, even if the the virus passes sooner than that time, the economic impact of COVID-19 is going to be with us for some time,” Morehouse said.
Feeding America estimates $1.4 billion will be needed across America to help the needy in the next six months due to the pandemic.
Morehouse said the planting season has begun on Shattuck Road in Hadley and potatoes are going into the ground this week. When asked what people can do to help support the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Morehouse replied, “It would be the same that any food bank will tell you, and that is cash donations will be the most effective and efficient way to strengthen our ability to get more food out there, because for every dollar that we receive in a donation, we're able to provide the equivalent of four meals."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the monthly amount of food distributed.
This segment aired on April 14, 2020.