Valley Green Feast delivers fresh food to low-income people

By Scott Merzbach
Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette; May 22, 2012

HADLEY – Inside a small barn at the Kitchen Garden Farm on Rocky Hill Road four women have formed an assembly line to pack cardboard boxes and plastic containers with groceries, everything from potatoes and salad greens to breads and meats, all purchased from area farms and bakeries.

Every Friday morning, throughout the cold of winter and the heat of summer, they prepare orders of locally grown, organic food that they will load in four vehicles for delivery to 300 households in the Pioneer Valley and northern Connecticut.

This worker-owned cooperative, known as Valley Green Feast [1], has been around for five years. But its current owners and employees, Rebekah Hanlon, Molly Merrett, Maggie Shar and Bekki Szlosek, are widening its reach, trying to get fresh food to low-income people and city dwellers, too. They are doing that by giving discounts to qualified people and tapping into the Holyoke YMCA for new customers.

“Our mission is to get the produce out to the people,” said Hanlon, the cooperative’s marketing manager. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for people to access the food systems around here.”

The number of weekly farmers markets has grown exponentially in this area, along with Community Supported Agriculture operations where members can purchase shares and make weekly pickups.

But there is still a need to improve nutrition among low-income families and promote the vitality of local farms, Hanlon said.

To make access to their food easier for people of limited means, Valley Green Feast began accepting EBT/SNAP – the federal food assistance program – this year. Those who are eligible receive a 20 percent discount on their fruits and vegetables.

Unlike many of the farmers markets that accept EBT/SNAP payments, though, Valley Green Feast is not depending on federal or state grants to reimburse it for the discount. Instead, it is reducing its own profits.

 

“It already feels right. It doesn’t feel like we’re stretching ourselves doing this,” Hanlon said.

“We’re making available things that are not necessarily available to them,” said Shar.

John Gerber, a professor at the Stockbridge School at UMass who teaches a course in sustainable living, praised the women’s willingness to focus on low-income customers without relying on government subsidies. “They are truly committed to helping limited-income families have access to fresh, healthy and local food,” he said. “This is truly a unique business and these are truly remarkable young women.”

A cooperative forms

Valley Green Feast was started in 2007 by Jessica Harwood as a one-woman farm food delivery service in Northampton, and it was based there until it moved to Hadley last year. The service had about 25 customers in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

When Harwood decided to move on, she found Merrett, 30, a co-owner and employee of the Pedal People Cooperative hauling service in Northampton, and Shar, 30, program coordinator for Fertile Ground, a Williamsburg-based teaching garden project for area schools. Both women were interested in continuing the business as a worker-owned cooperative, and by January 2010 they had worked out a transition plan. That summer they hired Hanlon, 24, the youth and family coordinator for the Greater Holyoke YMCA. Szlosek, 29, a personal chef, was the last to come on board, joining the group in January.

Their headquarters is the barn that owners of the Kitchen Garden Farm, Caroline Pam and Tim Wilcox, allow them to use on Fridays.

The women do most of the Valley Green Feast work themselves, though volunteers periodically help out. All four use their second jobs to promote Valley Green Feast through word-of-mouth. In addition, Merrett’s Pedal People Cooperative makes deliveries for Valley Green Feast in Northampton using its cargo bicycles.

“We consider ourselves a mobile farmers market,” Szlosek said.

Veggies to beef

By each Tuesday, customers have placed their orders via Valley Green Feast’s website, www.valleygreenfeast.com [2], ordering seasonal fruits and vegetables in containers that range from a mini box for $18 to a gathering box for $55. Customers pay a $4 delivery charge for standing orders and a $7 delivery charge for one-time orders.

The women collect the information in a database overseen by Shar. Merrett then places the orders at farms and other outlets which she has identified as using healthy food production methods, such as growing fruit without pesticides.

“We try and do local and seasonal as much as possible,” Hanlon said.

Customers can also request items like beef and pork from King Creek in Ware, beef from River Rock in Brimfield, poultry from Diemand Farm in Wendell and fish from Port Clyde, a Maine seafood cooperative. The women keep supplies of these foods in a freezer in the barn.

This month selections include salad mix from Red Fire Farm in Granby and Montague; cherry tomatoes from Enterprise Farm, which runs a regional food shed in Whately; cupcakes and breads from Woodstar Bakery in Northampton; corn meal from Four Star Farm in Northfield; yogurt from Side Hill Farm in Ashfield; and fresh bake-at-home pizza from Hillside Pizza in Hadley.

Merrett also includes recipes in a weekly newsletter she distributes to encourage people to use all of the produce in their orders.

Once the vehicles are loaded, the women head out. Merrett takes off for Northampton, where she coordinates the Pedal People deliveries, and the other three women divide up the remaining routes. One car goes north into Franklin County, another to Hilltowns and the third to the southern region. One of the newest drop-off points is the YMCA in Holyoke.

Hanlon has worked with YMCA associate executive director Jennifer Gilburg to establish the Valley Green Feast drop-off point at the Y building. As part of the arrangement, customers don’t have to pay the usual delivery fee.

The Y, which serves Holyoke, Granby and South Hadley, has promoted the effort through its healthy living initiative. “This really fits in with our goals at the Y,” Gilburg said.

So far, about 15 families have received deliveries there.

“The reaction has been very positive,” said Gilburg, who also has her own standing order.

Valley Green Feast has become part of the Valley Alliance of Worker Cooperatives, an organization that focuses on building partnerships between cooperatives. VAWC members include the Pedal People, Collective Copies, Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics, which promotes solar and hydropower, and website design firm Gaia Host Collective.

Adam Trott, staff developer for VAWC, is one of Valley Green Feast’s subscribers.

“I feel as a customer that you have a set of experts doing your shopping for you,” he said.

Valley Green Feast is beginning to work with traditional farmers markets as well. It was recently asked to bring a selection of meats and cheeses to the Holyoke Farmers Market each week.

“It’s an honor to be asked to be part of it,” Szlosek said.

“Our work is empowering, inspiring and nourishing, just like the food that we deliver,” Merrett said.

Daily Hampshire Gazette © 2011 All rights reserved

And for a follow-up Editorial in the Amherst Bulletin, see: Mission Possible – Produce to the People

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