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A nonprofit farm in Mass. hopes to address hunger at its root05:05
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Students from South High School in Worcester plant eggplant seedlings at the Community Harvest Project in Grafton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Students from South High School in Worcester plant eggplant seedlings at the Community Harvest Project in Grafton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It was a literal field trip.

The students, a contingent from Worcester's South High Community School, crouched in a field at a North Grafton farm, where rows and rows of dirt were covered in black plastic. Sophomore Nadia Frempong and some other kids are using poles to make holes in the plastic covering the ground.

“You just like poke it through and they put the plants inside,” she said.

Other students, like sophomore Anya Geist, knelt in the dirt, placing delicate eggplant starters in the holes.

For the last 20 years, thousands of people have volunteered with the Community Harvest Project on the nonprofit's 15-acre farm. The produce grown there supplies hunger assistance programs in the area.

Students from South High Community School in Worcester plant eggplant seedlings at the Community Harvest Project in Grafton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Students from South High Community School in Worcester plant eggplant seedlings at the Community Harvest Project in Grafton. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Volunteers range from teams of corporate workers to students like the ones from South High. They take on a three-hour shift doing everything from prepping the garden beds to harvesting the plants.

"I think there's something definitely about teamwork that we learn here," said Geist. "It's just really great to be out helping the community and actually working with your hands and doing stuff that you know is going to benefit other people."

At the end of their shift, the South High volunteers cleaned up at outdoor sinks and gathered with Community Harvest volunteer manager Wayne McAuliffe, who told them what they accomplished and how many servings their work will produce. McAuliffe started out as a volunteer at Community Harvest Project himself, 13 years ago.

Community Harvest Volunteer Manager Wayne McAuliffe huddles with the students from Worcester's South High School after the work in the morning has been done. They have planted 2,784 plants. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Community Harvest Volunteer Manager Wayne McAuliffe huddles with the students from Worcester's South High School after the work in the morning has been done. They have planted 2,784 plants. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The students are aware of hunger and volunteered to make a difference.

"Our school system has free lunches and free breakfasts and there are a lot of kids who depend on that for most of their meals," said freshman Phoebe McDermott. "So that's always been, I don't know, kind of a sad and scary thought."

It's not just kids dealing with hunger. One in three adults in Massachusetts depended on food assistance in 2021, according to a recent Greater Boston Food Bank report. Food insecurity rates cited in the report were highest among communities of color and people who identify as LGBTQ.

"We now likely know somebody in our circle — or our work, or in our church, or synagogue or temple — somebody we know is not able to make it on the income they have," said food bank President Catherine D'Amato.

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Community Harvest evolved from an idea by Bill and Rose Abbott, a Hopkinton couple who donated fresh produce from their farm to neighbors struggling to feed their families. It developed into a system that could get food to people without putting those experiencing hunger in the difficult position of explaining their situation.

"You don’t know if your neighbor’s suffering unless they tell you," said McAuliffe. "And there's personal pride around telling others that they are suffering or they are struggling financially and need to seek food resources."

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Wayne McAuliffe, manager of volunteer programs, and Dave Johnson, farm manager, speak with South High Community School student Alex Lanzo during a break from planting. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Wayne McAuliffe, manager of volunteer programs, and Dave Johnson, farm manager, speak with South High Community School student Alex Lanzo during a break from planting. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

While volunteers plant and harvest vegetables and blueberries, McAuliffe told them about what it takes to mitigate hunger on a local level. He explained that existing food assistance programs aren’t enough for many struggling families, and that Black, Latino and low-income families are disproportionately represented among the hungry.

Over time Community Harvest has adjusted the crops it grows, adding foods like hot peppers and okra that appeal more to immigrants and refugees, including the growing Afghan population in Massachusetts.

Still, they know one farm can’t solve the problem.

Dave Johnson, the farm's manager, said one goal is to show how pervasive hunger is, and that everyone can have a hand in doing something to address the problem.

"It is overwhelming to see hunger grow the way that it does in our community and to see those numbers increase dramatically, particularly over the course of the pandemic," Johnson said. "It at times can feel like the work that we are doing is a drop in the bucket.”

In all, Johnson said, Community Harvest expects to grow 125,000 pounds of food this year, enough to make 550,000 meals.

That food may be desperately needed. With inflation taking its toll on food prices, hunger may continue to grow. Raising awareness is the key to solving the problem, according to McAuliffe.

"This problem is not going to go away unless society decides to solve the problem," he said. "It's not getting better. It's getting worse. So the thousands of volunteers that visit us, we hope, can help be a voice in this challenge."

This segment aired on June 15, 2022.

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