Although there hasn’t been a hard freeze in Natick yet, the kind that turns basil leaves black and makes the last of the tomatoes inedible, the cold temperatures are coming. This much every gardener knows and accepts. Successes are noted—the celery and kale reveled in the 9-inches of rainfall that splashed down in July. Failures are mourned—the peppers moped all season, pining for a sun that remained stubbornly hidden behind clouds for summer days on end.
Garden plot dramas aside, A Place to Turn, an emergency food pantry in Natick that serves Metrowest community members in need, has given thanks all summer for the fresh produce that has come its way. I stopped by to talk to Joanne Barry, Executive Director of A Place to Turn, to find out how the nonprofit helps its clients meet the healthy-eating US Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines. It’s no easy task. According to the USDA, for optimum health half your plate at each meal should be made up of fruits and vegetables.
“We are a food pantry that has aligned our offerings to the USDA MyPlate. Our clients can leave here so they can eat according to that for a week. That’s a lot of fruits and vegetables. We work hard to provide clients with fresh produce.”
It doesn’t hurt that the food pantry receives donations from a neighbor. A literal stone’s throw from the pantry is The Reverend Eric Markman Community Garden, renamed as such earlier this year in a proclamation put forth by the Natick Conservation Commission. Markman served as the pastor of the Hartford Street Presbyterian Church for ten years. Under his leadership, the church leased a portion of its 8-acre property to the Natick Conservation Commission for the purpose of creating and maintaining a community garden. The garden beds were put together in an interfaith effort involving the congregations of area Presbyterian, Jewish, Muslim, Episcopal and Unitarian houses of worship. A portion of the garden’s 50+ plots have from the start been reserved for the Church’s use. The Church, as part of their mission, donates the bounty to A Place to Turn.
Barry speaks in reverent tones of Markman, who recently answered the call to serve an out-of-state parish. “He had the vision, and he made it happen, and I think about what he did all the time.”
It’s a sunny weekday, and the food pantry’s distribution tables are set up outside, farmer’s-market style, under tents. The area has the advantage of privacy. Neither distribution tables, clients, or their cars can be seen from busy Hartford Street. The open-air system allows not only a COVID-safe environment, but a shopping atmosphere in which the pantry’s 1,100 monthly clients (450 families) choose what they want. The fresh fruits and vegetables are always popular. “What we offer, nobody must take if they don’t want it. But everyone loves the fresh produce,” Barry says.
Barry has worked at A Place to Turn for 23 years, first as a volunteer. Back in the 1990s and before, it was the rare food pantry that provided fresh produce to its clients. “We were one of the first, and the Sudbury Foundation was the first organization to fund us. Because what we saw was people not taking the canned non-perishables. And many people would take nothing canned. We didn’t want to be a non-profit that says you’re ‘poor’ you’re ‘hungry,’ this is what you’re getting.”
She says the grant money A Place to Turn receives has had an enormous impact on what kids are eating. Barry gets a little frustrated by those who don’t work in the trenches of food insecurity issues, yet feel free to criticize what others put on their tables.
“So someone says to me, ‘why do all those families feed their kids macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets, that’s ridiculous.’ Well, if our families went out and bought brussels sprouts and pork loin and their kid didn’t eat it, their kid would go hungry,” she explains.
At A Place to Turn, volunteers encourage clients to take unfamiliar food items home, things they might hesitate to spend money on in the grocery store. If a novel item from the food pantry doesn’t work out for a family, it’s not a financial hit. “Our volunteers love hearing about how people are going to use the yucca, plantains, mangoes, kale, and other vegetables that we have, and how kids are trying new things.”
Although the Markman Community Garden plots are an important community initiative, they can’t come close to fully providing the pantry with fresh produce year-round. A Place to Turn purchases much of their produce from wide-ranging sources.
Powisset Farm in Dover, and Stearns Farm in Framingham are two of their local partners. The pantry also purchases from Johnny’s Produce in Brighton, Katsiroubas Produce in Hyde Park, and Boston Area Gleaners, which harvests surplus farm crops. “We have CSAs donated to us. We get that on a weekly basis. We get knocks on the door all the time. People donate stuff from their own private community plots and gardens,” Barry says.
In addition, ready-made meals get dropped off from Village Table, a community food service program managed by members of Wellesley Village Church.
Donations are always welcome. Due to COVID, the need has only increased. “I would say for us, probably an additional 100 families a month,” Barry says. “What we saw was so many retail workers and restaurant workers out of work. Even when people went back to work they’re working in a low-wage job, they haven’t paid their bills for 6 months to a year. It takes a while to come back from that.”
Barry looks back to the economic downturn of 2008. She says it took 2 years for families to get back to their previous levels of independence. She expects to see the same pattern post-COVID.
“We say to people, please don’t skimp on food. Please come here and use us. It’s such an important part of our mission that the clients see that.” She continues, “That they feel good about what they’re receiving, and know that most of it is fresh…it just warms my heart, it really does.”
How to get a community garden plot in Natick
The Town of Natick operates four organic community gardens for residents to grow food recreationally and supplementally during the spring and summer months.
Registration is open through Nov. 30 for those who currently have a plot.
New gardeners can register Dec. 1, 2021-Jan. 31,2022.
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