$1M in grants to boost local food system in Franklin, Hampshire counties

Tractors at Just Roots Farm in Greenfield.

Tractors at Just Roots Farm in Greenfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE and JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writers

Published: 02-27-2024 4:20 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Area organizations are welcoming grant awards that will boost the supply of fresh, local food available to those in need and provide support for local farmers.

“We’re really thrilled to have been selected,” said Lev BenEzra, executive director of the Amherst Survival Center. “The grant serves two functions — it helps support the local food system and food access, and it makes sure food purchased from farms gets to the right people.”

The Survival Center was awarded $430,000 for its Farm to Pantry Project through the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ Local Food Purchase Assistance Plus grant.

Of that amount, $420,000 will be spent directly on food purchased from local producers, BenEzra said. The grant allows purchasing from anywhere in Massachusetts, but almost all the food bought by the Survival Center comes from within 25 or 30 miles from Amherst, she said.

MDAR Commissioner Ashley Randle said in an interview community is important in addressing food insecurity.

“It is a community effort,” she said. “It takes the farms, businesses, the towns and the state and consumers all coming together to make these programs really impactful.”

In Franklin County, the state awarded $15,267 to Just Roots to support the Franklin County Food Council’s outreach, which will fund professional development and the creation of a “venue for information sharing,” according to MDAR.

Other area organizations to receive substantial grants were Grow Food Northampton, the Hilltown Community Development Corp. and the Northampton-based Collaborative for Educational Services, which will support resident training for food system leadership roles and help build relationships among community partners.

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Grow Food’s multiyear, $300,000 grant will go toward food purchases from a network of farmers the state describes as “socially disadvantaged.”

“It’s incredibly helpful to farmers,” Executive Director Alisa Klein said. “It supports the local economy, keeping money in the community.”

The farmers Grow Food buys from, including communities of color and women, often don’t have easy access to markets.

“We were doing local food delivery,” Klein said. “This grant makes it possible to buy that much more, and get that much more food to people experiencing food insecurity.”

With severe flooding throughout western Massachusetts last year, Randle said state support can increase the resiliency of the local food system.

“I would say after last year, food access has been top of mind and food security with the loss of crops,” Randle said, noting that last year’s flooding provided “a lot of lessons” in “how we can be more proactive in terms of our programs and how we respond.”

“We’re hoping to build a more resilient and food-secure local community and at the same time we’re creating that awareness and connection with consumers to recognize the importance of their local farms and food system providers,” she said.

BenEzra said the grant allows the Survival Center to diversify its offerings, with different types of milk, eggs from Diemand Farm, cheese from Sidehill Farm and meat from local producers.

Klein and BenEzra both say the need for food supports has soared since the end of pandemic subsidies.

Recent reports show food insecurity on the rise in Massachusetts. At the end of 2023, a U.S. Census report estimated that 22% of households with children were food-insecure. The term refers to those who can’t afford groceries after paying other required monthly expenses such as rent, utilities and transportation.

“We are experiencing absolutely record-breaking need,” BenEzra said. “We’re serving 40% to 50% more people than we were during the pandemic.”

The grant aid, which continues through May 2025, will ensure the Survival Center can keep its shelves stocked with a wide variety of food.

BenEzra credited MDAR for helping local producers to be more competitive.

“It couldn’t come at a better time,” she said. “The Farm to Pantry Project provides such a win-win. Patrons have more food, and local farmers have a new market. It strengthens the local food system for all.”

Other MDAR grants announced last week include $200,000 to Hilltown CDC to expand its free “Help Yourself” fridge, CSA shares, and food pantry distributions; $50,000 to the Northampton Survival Center to expand food purchasing and distribution through new partnerships with farmers, producers and food distribution centers; and $14,000 to Hilltown CDC to assess food access points to create a brochure highlighting local farms, grocery stores, free meal programs and food pantries.

In all, MDAR awarded $8.2 million under four grant programs across the state.

“One of the most effective ways to combat hunger and food insecurity in our state is to strengthen our local food systems,” Gov. Maura Healey said in a statement. “We’re proud to support our community leaders who are at the heart of these critical initiatives that help to make sure that everyone, no matter where they live, has access to fresh, healthy and locally grown food.”