Tufts Farming Project Joins COVID-19 Food Insecurity Effort

Friedman School's New Entry program is participating in Farmers to Families, a USDA program that gets fresh produce to families in need

The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy is helping feed families in need through a federal COVID-19 response program.

New Entry is partnering with the Boston Area Gleaners, a nonprofit whose volunteers harvest surplus crops from local farms, to distribute boxes of produce to families in need through the USDA’s Farmers to Families program, part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

“I’m grateful that our government is stepping up and doing something tangible and real. These kinds of government interventions continue to have multiplier effects within the local economy,” said New Entry Director Jennifer Hashley. “I’m glad we have the experience and capability to take this on, and I’m proud to be able to help families who are struggling right now and connect them with healthy food.”

New Entry was already working with Boston Area Gleaners. When the Farmers to Families contract was announced, they saw an opportunity to use their collaboration to reach even more families in need. On New Entry’s recommendation, Boston Area Gleaners took the lead, applying for the six-week contract in May with New Entry listed as a collaborator.

“We’ve been offering produce boxes through our CSA program for 15 years, sourcing crops from multiple farmers trained through our programs and other area farms and bundling it for individual families to consume, so we already had partners and a distribution mechanism,” Hashley said. “We knew we could turn boxes around quickly.”

They were also eager to contribute to COVID-19 relief efforts, according to Hashley. “This program has the potential to really help people at this time, when they’re stuck at home, maybe not feeling safe to shop at large stores, and otherwise not eating away from home and cooking more,” she said. “Providing them with actual food items that they would otherwise have to buy helps them save their limited dollars for other things.”

Initially, Boston Area Gleaners provided the produce and packaging materials, and New Entry divided it into 600 family-size boxes of 30 pounds each and sent them out to its network of nonprofits. It was a hectic first few weeks as both Boston Area Gleaners and New Entry worked to scale up their operations and work out kinks in the process.

New Entry also had fewer volunteers due to social distancing, and nearly double the usual demand for its regular CSA boxes. Then in July, New Entry’s CSA program for seniors started, and the two staff members found themselves delivering a total of 1,600 boxes per week. “We were really busy,” Hashley said. 

Starting in September, the contract will change to include dairy and meat in the same box as produce. Because New Entry doesn’t have the climate-controlled packing facilities that the USDA requires, Boston Area Gleaners has recruited its other partners to pack the boxes and do some distribution, and New Entry will scale back its role to facilitating the deliveries of the 600 boxes per week to families in the Salem Public Schools system. This will be more manageable, but a bit disappointing because the program is not benefitting small-scale local and regional farmers as much as it initially promised to, Hashley said.

“I had hoped we could regularly include our farmers’ products in the boxes, supporting them with an additional market outlet and directly benefitting the local food system. But with the USDA’s stringent requirements, we have not been able to,” Hashley said.

In contrast, Hashley pointed to the benefits of New Entry’s senior shares program, a partnership with Lahey Health in which local produce is displayed farmers’-market-style. Seniors walk through, choose their own items, and socialize. “It’s more than a food distribution program—it’s a health intervention that reduces social isolation, provides good food, and benefits farmers economically, without being a huge burden on staff, ” Hashley said. This year, due to COVID-19 safety protocols, the senior shares are pre-bagged and some shares are delivered to homebound seniors. “If there could be more federal funding for those kinds of initiatives, that would be amazing.”

Still, in many ways, the Farmers to Families contract is very much in line with New Entry’s mission. “For us, this is another opportunity to make sure fresh produce lands in the hands of people who need it, to introduce people to new varieties of whole foods that they haven’t tried, and to fulfill our desire for a vibrant food system that’s accessible to everybody,” Hashley said.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.

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