Neighbors come together to help farmers and communities in need.

By Susan B. Barnes
June 23, 2020
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When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S., the staff at Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities in Northwest Michigan met to brainstorm about what they could do in response.

"We asked ourselves, 'What can we do right now to have the greatest impact,'" recalls Meghan McDermott, Groundwork's director of programs. "We landed on the idea of linking local food to food pantries. We knew our local restaurants were going to be closing, farmers markets were closing or going online. We knew this was going to be an economic hit to our local growers.

"We also knew for families experiencing economic insecurity as a result of the pandemic, it was going to be really critical that they have access to not only food, but high-quality food," McDermott continues. "This is something Groundwork really believes as an organization: we believe in connecting local food to healthcare and wellness, and we believe that access to healthy food is a way to break the cycle of poverty and lower healthcare costs."

The team set a fundraising goal of $30,000 in seven days to launch the Local Food Relief Fund, Groundwork's newly-formed initiative, and they began planning. Within 18 days of the brainstorming session and planning to launch, more than $130,000 was raised.

"It's really been amazing," says McDermott. "Agriculture is really part of the community in Northern Michigan, and people realized, it was on their minds, 'What is this going to mean for farmers?'"

To date, more than $185,000 has been raised for the Local Food Relief Fund, and all of the money is passed through to two food pantry partners: The Manna Food Project and The Northwest Food Coalition; together they represent more than 100 food pantries across eight counties in Northwest Michigan.

"Shorty after we far exceeded our fundraising goals, I was in touch with two local farmers who had storage crops — beets, cabbage, carrots — available," says Christina Barkel, Groundwork's food and farming program associate. "We quickly put together an order, and that immediately went out to local food pantries. Since then, local produce purchased includes dried cherries, asparagus, tomatoes and cucumbers."

Barkel is also working with the Northwest Food Coalition to develop a purchasing plan that reflects a wider diversity of crops, as well as the needs of the food pantries and the communities they serve.

The local farmers are benefiting from the fund, too. Barkel shares the story of one small farm run by a young family that is immunocompromised.

"The purchases we plan to make from them means they don't have to attend a local market, and they feel safer that they don't have to be out interacting with the public," she says. "Instead of risking their health for economic gain, they know they have a guaranteed sale with us."

She also says that through the fund, the Northwest Food Coalition purchased an excess of tomatoes from another farm that was hard-hit from the lack of restaurant sales.

"Back when they were planning their business, no one knew this COVID event was going to happen," Barkel explains. "We bought more than 1,000 pounds of those excess tomatoes, and for that farm, it's super impactful."

The goal is to spend all of the money in the fund by December 31 so that the food pantries can continue to purchase and eat local foods into the winter months; and the Northwest Food Coalition plans to purchase at least 16 different crops from about 20 farmers, for an estimated 60,288 pounds purchased.

Barb and Harry Norconk, of Norconk Farm (Empire, Michigan), sold asparagus to Groundwork's Local Food Relief Fund.
Courtesy of Groundwork

We Give a Share

At about the same time Groundwork was brainstorming its Local Food Relief Fund, restaurants and tailgate markets were closing in Asheville, North Carolina, which meant local farmers were losing clientele. That's when the local initiate We Give a Share was born, connecting chefs, farms, and the community to serve fresh food to those who need it most.

"It's a double duty — feeding people and supporting farms through this local initiative," says Aaron Grier of Gaining Ground Farm.

We Give a Share is certainly a team effort. Initially, Grier called Chef John Fleer, owner of Rhubarb, The Rhu and Benne on Eagle, to whom he sold produce, who in turn got in touch with Chef Mark Rosenstein. Together they called upon Asheville culinary legend Chef Hanan Shabazz, Chef Kikkoman Shaw, and David Nash, executive director of the Asheville Housing Authority, to reopen Southside Kitchen to prepare meals for those in need.

"In mid-March we got the kitchen ready, and served the first 100 meals on March 24," recalls Rosenstein. "Then, Aaron called with the farming idea. We launched the [We Give a Share] website in a week, and in two months have raised more than $140,000."

To date, the initiative is working with about 10 local farmers who provide produce, locally-ground flours, and cornmeals, cheese, and "we're getting ready to add trout to the menu." Through its partnership with the housing authority, 350 to 400 meals a day are made, individually bagged as door hangers, and distributed to the elderly and those who cannot go out who live in city housing.

"The shutdown gave us an opportunity to get creative and reach out to parts of the community we haven't reached in the past with our products," says Grier. "The idea that excites us, other than the economic support, is that the plate of a diner at one of our restaurants downtown and the plate of one of our tailgate market shoppers and the plate of folks living in affordable housing could be the same on any given night.

"We're putting premium products on the plates of everyone in the community," he continues.

While Southside Kitchen continues to provide meals daily, the team is looking to the future. Chef Shaw has already committed to lead the kitchen for the next year, and they're considering providing food boxes to go out into the community in addition to prepared meals.

In this pre-COVID photo, Christina Barkel (far left), a lead coordinator of Groundwork's Local Food Relief Fund, packages asparagus at the Goodwill Northern Michigan Food Rescue warehouse.
Courtesy of Groundwork

Help Across the Country

When Maxwell Goldman, a rising senior at Brown University and co-founder of FarmLink, and his friends were sent home from the universities at which they were studying because of COVID-19, they realized they wanted to help their communities in any way they could. They thought on it a bit, all the while coming across articles about millions of pounds of food being wasted and sent to the dumps daily, and photos of the "crazy long lines at food banks that were turning away people, and had the most demand since the Great Depression."

"This can't be right," Goldman says he and his friends thought. "There can't be food going to waste while millions of people across the United States are having trouble finding their next meals."

Enter FarmLink, a grassroots initiate that rescues food from going to the dump, according to Goldman. The work started in Los Angeles, where FarmLink is based: they matched a farm in Idaho with a surplus of onions with a local food bank; it was a 50,000-pound delivery. The next day they sourced and delivered eggs.

"Over the past two months we've grown and we're now a group of 200 college students volunteering from about 30 different universities all over the country," says Goldman. FarmLink has raised nearly $1 million in funding and delivered 3.5 million pounds of food to date; the goal is to start delivering one million pounds of food a day.

"The food waste issue is not new by any means; it's just been brought to our attention," says Goldman. "Every year, there's about 60 billion pounds of food gone to waste, and millions of Americans not knowing where their next meals coming from…past this pandemic, there's still a lot of work to be done."

FarmLink's 200 volunteers are working in different areas to fund the organization, from tech and finance to logistics and transportation. The farms team works to identify farms with a surplus of food, and the food banks team is looking for the most food insecure counties around the country "where we need to send the food we're sourcing."

One hundred percent of the funds raised goes directly to paying farmers and truckers for transportation; the food is delivered to food banks in need, free of cost to them. So far, food has been delivered to 30 states, and another goal is to deliver to every state in the U.S.

"Food waste is not a new issue, and we are committed and passionate about making a dent in that problem," says Goldman. "We're not stopping when this pandemic is over; we're going to keep going and help as many people as possible."

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