Dartmouth farmers participate in pilot program, bring fresh food to low-income neighborhoods

Dec 15, 2016

Two Dartmouth farms are participating in a new, grant-funded program that provides fresh produce to 26 low-income families in New Bedford.

Unlike a traditional community supported agriculture program, through which participants pay hundreds of dollars upfront for a share of the crops and can regularly pick up crop yields at the farm itself, Mass in Motion New Bedford’s Subsidized CSA program provides a weekly payment option and brings food right to participants’ doors.

“We don’t have farms in New Bedford,” said Kim Ferreira, director of Mass in Motion New Bedford. She explained that both the cost and accessibility of fresh produce are real challenges for low-income residents. “If you’re a single mother of three, with a five-year old and a one-year old, think of the logistics of trying to make it to a grocery store. A lot of folks don’t have vehicles,” she said.

That’s where Susan Murray of Apponagansett Farm and Ashley Brister from Round the Bend Farm step in. Each is responsible for a project area in New Bedford — Bay Village and Presidential Heights (both run by the New Bedford Housing Authority), respectively.

“Each Wednesday for 20 weeks, they set up a stand at the site, and residents come pick up their produce,” said Ferreira. This differs from traditional models where shoppers get fresh produce at an onsite farm stand, mobile market, or farmers market, however much of the process is already familiar to the farmers.

“Sometimes we grow different vegetables. People want to know what it is and how do you use it,” said Murray, who provides everything from Asian pears and watermelons, to tomatoes, zucchini, and leafy greens. “You get a lot of the same questions no matter where you’re at.”

It’s a $20 per week share, but half of it is subsidized by the three-year grant, provided by the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation. Additionally, thanks to the the state Department of Transitional Assistance, participants can use food stamps if they have them to pay the $10 weekly cost.

The program has three components, explained Ferreira. The share itself comes with weekly newsletters that describe what’s available and applicable recipes, and they’re also translated into Spanish. Additionally, farmers provide workshops, including cooking demonstrations. There are also farm visits that allow participants to see how farm-to-table works.

The program started on June 15 of this year, so Mass in Motion is just know starting to evaluate the first year’s effectiveness.

“The families that participated absolutely loved it,” said Ferreira. However, there were challenges involved.

“Being part of a CSA is a little bit of a learning curve because you eat a lot more seasonally,” said Murray. “It’s a commitment, but you’re going to see a lot of behavioral changes with eating,” she added, explaining that getting people to a farmers market one time is not going to necessarily change their interactions with food.

“It takes time for people to invest in this and see this as a change in their habits,” said Ferreira.

Next year, Ferreira would like to introduce more workshops on canning and freezing so that participants can still have fresh produce into the winter months.

She’d also like to provide two share sizes next year.

“A lot of the folks were overwhelmed,” she said, explaining that the shares provide not only more produce than participants are used to consuming, but also varieties that they aren’t necessarily familiar with. A smaller share option — which would have an adjusted price — would better service smaller families, the senior population, and people who want to try the CSA before fully committing.

Next year, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants will be able to use food stamps statewide — at any farmers market, food stand, etc. — to buy local produce, and will receive a credit back on their account that is based on family size. The program is currently slated to roll out in April.