From Berkeley, California, to Amherst, Massachusetts, the towns where I grew up have been as “local” and “sustainable” as they come. Now, a little more than two years after relocating to New York City, I’ve found myself circling back to the fields and farmers’ markets that colored much of my childhood. As a communications intern at WhyHunger, I spend two days a week in the office thinking and writing about our mission: to build the movement to end hunger and poverty by connecting people to nutritious, affordable food and by supporting grassroots solutions that inspire self-reliance and community empowerment. It’s a mission built on values I grew up taking for granted because they were, at least in theory, intrinsic to the liberal bubbles in which I was raised.
My connection to WhyHunger’s mission goes beyond places, to the people I was raised by. My family is chock full of foodies, cooks and gardeners, all of whom have fostered my deep appreciation for fresh, local food. My dad, Clem Clay, grew up on a beautiful farm in Vermont, studied soil science, and managed the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets after college and before spending a year as an organic vegetable farmer (with me in tow).
He is the Executive Director of Grow Food Northampton, a community-based organization whose mission is to “promote food security by advancing sustainable agriculture in the Northampton, Massachusetts area.” Grow Food Northampton carries out its mission through a variety of programs centered at its 120-acre community farm, including the 266-plot Organic Community Garden, education programs familiarizing local schoolchildren with concepts like food security and sustainable agriculture, and discounted farm shares for the food insecure.
In short, it’s exactly the kind of organization WhyHunger works with on a daily basis. So in late October, two months into my internship, I decided to buy a bus ticket back to Massachusetts to lend a hand at Grow Food Northampton’s FarmFest and to size up the organization with my new intern perspective. I spend a lot of my time at WhyHunger reading and writing about the crucial work done by community-based organizations, and I wanted to see how it all manifests in person.
FarmFest is an annual tradition for Grow Food Northampton, albeit a relatively new one (this is the organization’s third FarmFest). The event took place on Crimson & Clover Farm, one of the four farms the organization leases land to, and manifests as an afternoon full of food, live music and farm-centric activities (think wagon rides and veggie slingshots). Many of this year’s estimated 350 festival attendees had some prior connection to GrowFood Northampton, but in subsequent years Clay hopes to attract more unfamiliar faces – he believes that FarmFest is a great opportunity to connect more people with GrowFood Northampton’s community programs. “As the owners of the largest community farm in Massachusetts, this is the best opportunity we have to invite the entire community to enjoy the farm and see what we do,” said Clay.
Arguably the biggest hits of the day were the two local food trucks that served up fresh arepas, giant burritos, whoopee pies and other locally sourced treats. According to Zoe Abram, co-owner of Wheelhouse Farm Truck, “This is our favorite type of event to do. We’re really interested in being part of a vibrant agricultural community in our area, and Grow Food Northampton does a lot of work to support that.”
A successful FarmFest isn’t the only thing Grow Food Northampton has to celebrate right now – last month, the organization was awarded a $50,000 grant from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation to expand their food access programs. Increasing food security is integral to the organization’s mission, which makes this grant particularly important. “It’s been the vision of the organization from the beginning to make sure that we not only support local agriculture but make sure that local food is available to all members of our community,” said Clay.
At WhyHunger I’ve seen firsthand, through the work of our partners like the Delta Fresh Foods Initiative and Urban Roots, that fighting the deep social inequalities that lead to poverty and hunger is the most meaningful and sustainable way of ending hunger. This philosophy is also behind two initiatives GrowFood Northampton plans to expand under their Harvard Pilgrim grant: Double SNAP shares and low-cost CSA shares for senior citizens. Clay also hopes to pilot a new CSA program in partnership with local elementary schools, which would make subsidized farm shares available to low-income families using the schools as distribution sites.
Despite their successes, Clay still feels there’s plenty of work to be done in the Northampton area, and has no plans to expand the geographic scope of the organization. “We haven’t even come close to meeting the need in our own community, and we think we can do more good by focusing on increasing our local impact and helping others to replicate our successes in their own communities,” he said.
On the bus ride back to New York the day after FarmFest, I found myself reflecting on the event. It was small, to be sure, but it seemed to me that each and every person who came was genuinely excited to learn about, support and join in the movement for local, sustainable and accessible food. My experience at WhyHunger has only strengthened my belief in grassroots-driven change, so seeing it at work in my former backyard was a happy combination of comforting, gratifying, and inspiring – in short, I’m ready to get back to the office and work!