A fresh take on farm-to-table in the food pantry

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A fresh take on farm-to-table in the food pantry

Published in The Portland Press Herald on June 3, 2021

Across the country over the past year, monumental job loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic created more need than ever for food basics. However, some of the people that work in Maine’s robust charitable food network have emerged from an extra difficult year feeling hopeful for the future.

The causes of food insecurity are complex, but it is broadly defined as not having dependable sources of food for a healthy and active lifestyle. There are many reasons this happens, like living in a rural area where stores have closed, which then creates unpredictable supply or pricing. People might not have reliable transportation to get to the store, or jobs adequate in their area that pay a living wage for work.

In Maine, there is an extensive and dedicated network of people working to solve this problem up and down the food supply chain, and they operate with the knowledge that people are not food insecure for lack of food; there’s plenty out there. It just has to get to people.

One of the most valuable aspects of a community food pantry is that there are no barriers to entry.

“If you are coming into our space, you obviously need help and that’s what we’re here to do,” said Linda Sandefur, co-manager of the Ecumenical Food Pantry in Newcastle. “We welcome everyone.”

When Sandefur started working there four years ago, all of the produce they received was from a major grocery chain. While being clear that this is a valuable, nourishing source of food, Sandefur said that a grocery store donation is often “near the end of its shelf life. It needs trimming, freshening up.”

Fresh produce in pantries mostly comes from three sources: surplus from grocery stores, surplus from commercial farms, and from food bank farms, a nonprofit model that grows food exclusively for use in pantries.

The Ecumenical Food Pantry works closely with Twin Villages Foodbank Farm, located on the Coastal Rivers Conservation Land Trust in Damariscotta. Everything produced on the farm, about 50,000 pounds per growing season, is donated to food banks.

“During the growing season, our families and neighbors have the same level of produce that could be at any farmer’s market in the state,” said Sandefur. “Our job at the pantry is relatively easy: we set it up like a mini farmer’s market and it’s beautiful. It’s really exceptional.” She also appreciated the predictability of volume and product, a rare occurrence in the charitable food world.

Twin Villages is one of a few Maine-based nonprofits to receive a Healthy Food Fund grant from the Harvard Pilgrim Foundation over the past few years. These grants provide $565,000 over three years to Maine nonprofits that are dedicated to getting healthy food to people in need.

“Our healthy food partners are the resources needed for communities – they are on the ground, doing the work,” said Karen Voci, president of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation. “Our partners have developed a personal connection to their communities and they know the most efficient ways to get this food into pantries and kitchens and on to people’s plates.”

Twin Villages Foodbank Farm co-founder Megan Taft, who is also the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Good Shepherd Food Bank, said they used the grant money to pay staff to organize volunteer assignments at the farm or off site at other area farms, where they pick and transport surplus produce. Last year, Twin Villages gathered another 35,000 pounds of fresh produce this way, which was more than three times what they had projected before the pandemic.

“As a result of COVID, I saw people getting more innovative and eliminating barriers,” said Taft. She felt people in general were attuned to the level of need and looked for ways to help. Now those connections will continue to strengthen their network, which serves about 15 partners in Lincoln County in addition to the Ecumenical Food Pantry. Those partners range from after school programs to group homes and shelters, many of them sharing strategically placed hubs of cool storage to expand space.

“Chaos is just the nature of the network,” said Sandefur, as she explained the myriad pathways that valuable produce will travel to make sure it is used.

Read the full article here.

TVFF supports food pantries with storage hub

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TVFF supports food pantries with storage hub

Published in The Boothbay Register on May 19, 2021

In addition to donating tens of thousands of pounds of organically grown, nutrient-dense food to Lincoln County food pantries and youth programs every year, Twin Villages Foodbank Farm (TVFF) supports pantries by offering convenient storage space and the ability to receive large shipments of food.

TVFF’s food storage hub, located in the undercroft of Darrows Barn at Coastal Rivers’ Round Top Farm, makes it possible for the farm to collect and store food from other sources such as Good Shepherd Foodbank, Hannaford Supermarket, Northeast Transport, and local growers and gleaners.

Since many area food pantries have limited dry or cold storage space, they are not able to take in large shipments. In the past, this sometimes meant that deliveries to those pantries had to be turned away. Now pantries and other non-profits can have pallets of both perishable and refrigerated food shipped to the food storage hub and pick it up what they need when they’re ready to use it.

The hub features a 16 by 20-foot walk-in cooler and ample room for dry food storage. The space was designed with a receiving entrance and ramps so pallets and carts can be maneuvered in and out. Last year, the farm raised money to invest in pallet jacks, carts, and large produce boxes to make it easier to handle and store bulky deliveries.

In 2020, TVFF took in over 35,000 pounds of food from other sources. While Good Shepherd Food Bank is the largest food access supplier, TVFF also collected several thousand pounds of fresh organic food from Wanderwood Farm in Nobleboro and Spear Spring Farm in Warren, as well as food from local groups such as Midcoast Gleaners, the Lincoln County Food Initiative, and Lincoln County Regional Planning’s food boxes.

Rising Tide Community Market’s Loving Local meals program, which donates hundreds of nutritious prepared meals to most area pantries weekly, has also used the hub to store food.

To keep pace with increasing need in the community, TVFF has set an ambitious goal for 2021, with plans to grow, collect, and distribute 85,000 pounds of fresh food. The farm’s long-term goal is to be able to consistently provide 100,000 pounds of produce a year to food pantries and other low-income food programs.

Twin Villages Foodbank Farm’s mission is to grow and distribute healthy food for those who need it most in Lincoln County. The farm serves food pantries in Boothbay, Damariscotta/Newcastle, Jefferson, New Harbor, Waldoboro, Whitefield, and Wiscasset, and youth food programs including FARMS at the Y, the YMCA daycare, Newcastle Head Start, and several weekend school backpack programs.

The Farm operates in close partnership with Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust. In addition to space for the food storage hub at Coastal Rivers’ Round Top Farm, the land trust donates use of three acres of prime farmland at Salt Bay Farm and provides administrative, fundraising and communications support.

Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust is a non-profit, nationally accredited land trust with active programs in land conservation, water quality, trails and public access, and nature education in the Damariscotta-Pemaquid region. For more information, email info@coastalrivers.org or visit www.coastalrivers.org.

Twin Villages Foodbank Farm wins second annual Innovation Award

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Twin Villages Foodbank Farm wins second annual Innovation Award

by Joseph Charpentier
Published in the Boothbay Register on May 21, 2019

Twin Villages Food Bank Farm co-founders Megan Taft and Sara Cawthon won the second annual Innovation Award presented by the Coulombe Center for Health Improvement. The recipients were awarded at the Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Golf Resort and received $3,000 to continue their efforts to combat food insecurity in the Lincoln County area.

CCHI Program Manager Anni Pat McKenney presented the award. She explained it illustrates the type of work CCHI holds in high regard. McKenney said CCHI was pleased to have five nominations in the past year. LincolnHealth’s Kelly Creamer, Jim Stevens, Christine Henson and Cathy Cole were on the selection committee which also had community members Haley Bezon, last year’s recipient, and Holly Stover. Other nominations included Nancy Van Dyke of Food for Thought, Eric Duffy of Lincoln Academy, Meagan Hamblett of CLC YMCA, and Charlie Richardson of Kieve Wavus.

McKenney said TVFF impressed the selection committee with its wide impact to Lincoln County and for supporting the county’s youngest to its eldest. The committee also noted TVFBF partners with several of the other nominees, said McKenney.

CLC YMCA’s Director of Operations Casey Clark Kelley nominated TVFBF. “They are a partner who encourages synergy of collaboration working alongside others instead of in their own silos,” wrote Kelley in her letter of support.

Also providing letters of support were Gretchen Burleigh-Johnson, a Wiscasset-based food pantry director, and the evening’s keynote speaker, Kristin Miale, President of Good Shepherd Food-Bank.

Taft spoke on behalf of TVFF with her and her partner Cawthon’s daughter Adley who could barely peek above the podium. Taft said she did not want to sound cliché should she win the award, so she decided she would share a piece of wisdom Adley has held onto over the past year:

“Adley has taught us that life is about filling your bucket and finding those moments of joy and happiness. This is one of them.”

Adley’s lesson came from her school’s guidance counselor: Haley Bezon, last year’s Innovation Award recipient for her work with Hearty Roots. “It all comes full circle,” said Taft.

“We believe that all of our neighbors in Lincoln County deserve the very best … We do that by growing the best food we can and allowing everybody to have access to the best nutrition possible” – Megan Taft, co-founder of Twin Villages Food Bank Farm.

Four years ago when TVFF was barely an idea, its co-founders struggled with how to best bring their passion for agriculture to the community in a helpful way. With Taft’s background in food access and food justice and Cawthon’s background from five generations of Midwest corn and soybean farming, they figured the two experiences would have to mesh somewhere.

They spoke with Damariscotta River Association’s Stephen Hufnagel about their thoughts and a short walk through the Round Top property later, they understood Hufnagel was all about shepherding a vision of a land trust with community at its center.

“Growing food for our community was just a no-brainer,” Taft said.

How does it feel to help grow food for others?

“Good,” said Adley, daughter of Megan Taft and Sara Cawthon.

What’s the best part?

“Pulling the carrots out of the ground!”

In TVFF’s first season in 2016, it grew and distributed 20,000 pounds of food. This past year, the figure was 40,000 pounds and next year is projected at 50,000 pounds – all done on two acres of land by two people: Cawthon and assistant farm manager Kaitlyn Gardner, now an extension of their family, said Taft.

Read the full article in the Boothbay Register

Farming with kid-power

Posted by Sara Cawthon on
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Farming with kid-power

November 28, 2017

“I enjoyed harvesting beets and carrots. I learned there is a place that grows and gives produce to people who need it. It means a lot to me to be a part of it.”

So wrote Zoie Wells, a fifth grader at Great Salt Bay (GSB) Community School, in a handwritten note to Twin Villages Foodbank Farm Manager Sara Cawthon. Zoie’s note is affirming of the farm’s intent to work with students to foster a sense of community stewardship as well as a connection to the local growing season.

Twin Villages Foodbank Farm grows vegetables using organic growing practices on two acres of land, located at Coastal River Conservation Trust’s Great Salt Bay Farm. All the produce is donated to food pantries and other low-income food programs in Lincoln County.

Launched in 2016, the farm produced nearly 20,000 pounds of produce for four Lincoln County food pantries in its first season. This year, the farm has grown 30,000 pounds of produce, with deliveries to six area pantries and two youth programs each week. The farm will continue to make fresh food deliveries to area pantries until early December.

As early as last May, GSB’s Agriculture Coordinator, Margaret Coleman, began bringing students from 5th through 8th grade to the farm, where they spread compost, removed rocks, and transplanted seedlings. This fall, GSB returned with 5th and 6th graders to help bring in the harvest, resulting in over 2,000 pounds of carrots, beets, peppers and potatoes for donation.

Lincoln Academy Seniors came out for spring community service day and helped prepare sixteen 100-foot long beds for transplanting many spring crops. And almost every week throughout the summer, Coastal Rivers’ summer campers visited the farm to help with harvesting, planting and weeding. All told, over 450 students and campers volunteered at the farm this season.

Additionally, FARMS Community Kitchen was on hand this fall offering field-cooked taste tests using seasonal recipes. While some students harvested and washed produce, others cooked outside under a tent, offering samples of fresh farm food to the volunteers.

TVFF will continuing to partner with GSB, Lincoln Academy, and FARMS, with plans to host even more students next spring.

TVFF partner Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust, formerly Damariscotta River Association and Pemaquid Watershed Association, is a non-profit, membership supported, and nationally accredited land trust and conservation organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the natural, cultural, and historical heritage of the Damariscotta-Pemaquid region. For more information, visit coastalrivers.org.

Growing student gardeners at Round Top Farm

Posted by Sara Cawthon on
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Growing student gardeners at Round Top Farm

December 15, 2016

Growing a Partnership

As part of a growing partnership with teachers in the local community, Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust (formerly Damariscotta River Association) has provided space for Great Salt Bay School (GSB) students to start and maintain a garden at Coastal Rivers’ Round Top Farm on Business Route 1. Over the past several months, students and teachers have been working with GSB’s Agriculture Coordinator Margaret Coleman and Twin Villages Foodbank Farm Manager Sara Cawthon to get a 1,200-square foot garden plot at Round Top ready for winter and in good condition for the 2017 gardening season.

After breaking ground last summer, the gardeners planted a mix of oats, peas, and vetch to serve as a cover crop, helping to build the soil and combat weeds. Then in November, Chris Coleman’s GSB fourth graders helped plant garlic over half of the area. The rest of the plot will stay in cover crop until spring.

“Everything grown in GSB’s Round Top Garden will be used by the GSB community, or donated to food pantries in the area,” said Coleman. “Plans are in the works for spring crops and further educational opportunities, along with potential expansion of the garden area itself. The Round Top plot will also serve as a demonstration garden, highlighting work the Foodbank Farm is already doing at the DRA headquarters on Belvedere Road.”

The garden plot is located behind the former ice cream shack at Round Top, within easy walking distance from GSB.

“I understand that there is work being done to create a walking path all the way from the Shell Middens, which are directly across from the school,” Coleman added. “This will allow students and teachers to walk safely, and off the road, to get to the Farmer’s Market, and to their own garden plot.”

According to Coastal Rivers Executive Director Steven Hufnagel, creating easy access from GSB to Round Top Farm is one of several important features of the project.

“What could be more exciting than giving students an opportunity like the gardening program for hands-on learning?” Hufnagel said. “It teaches skills and strengthens curricular learning from math to life science to economics. We’re delighted to support it, not only by offering land, but also by constructing a trail connecting the school to Round Top Farm. Kudos to the staff and leadership of GSB for putting the ‘community’ into Great Salt Bay Community School!”

Growing Food Security and Community Connections

GSB also has several garden spaces located on its own school grounds, which Coleman oversees with the help and involvement of as many students as possible.

“GSB students take on much of the responsibility of working with me to plan these spaces, order seeds, maintain soil health, and start seedlings in the classroom under grow lights,” she explained. “They also sign up to work with me over the summer to keep the gardens weeded, watered, and harvested.”

In the spring and fall, GSB classes use the gardens to observe, plant, harvest, taste, and learn. During the winter months, Coleman works with grades K-4, starting seedlings and growing microgreens and shoots for in-class seeding, harvesting, and eating.

Coleman believes the number of students involved in the gardens will increase as a result of Coastal Rivers’ support for the Twin Villages Foodbank Farm and GSB’s gardeners.

“Sara and I are collaborating with Coastal Rivers to increase understanding and awareness about food security and help forge a lasting connection between community service and locally grown food.”

The GSB gardens, including the new Round Top plot, are managed with organic and sustainable practices whenever possible, and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used.

Brawny Broccoli!

Posted by Sara Cawthon on
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Brawny Broccoli!

July 25, 2016

Judging by the size of the broccoli, Twin Villages Foodbank Farm has some good, rich soil to work with. Farm Manager Sara Cawthon reports that despite a dry summer, the vegetables are thriving. Cawthon and volunteers have been kept busy harvesting crisp lettuces, kale, vibrant Swiss chard, mini cabbages, beets, squash and broccoli.

Thanks to the community and individual donors, the farm has been making regular deliveries to the Ecumenical Food Pantry in Newcastle, St. Philip’s Church Food Pantry in Wiscasset, the Jefferson Area Food Bank, and the Open Door Café in Damariscotta, with hopes to expand to other programs in neighboring towns in the 2017 growing season.

The Ecumenical Food Pantry is very happy to replace some of the “tired” donations of produce with fresh-picked vegetables from the farm. The food pantry in Wiscasset isn’t equipped to store much produce, so is grateful to receive a delivery of lush greens each week, timed to arrive just prior to the pantry’s hours of operation. The Jefferson Area Food Bank has recently expanded their efforts and hours and uses TVFF produce to meet their growing needs.

Twin Villages Foodbank Farm has been focused on building infrastructure to meet on-farm and area needs. Paul Kelsey of Reilly Well Drilling quickly fit the farm into his busy schedule to drill a new well in July, and geophysicist Chris Covel volunteered his time to find the best location for the well on the property.

Additionally, TVFF just installed a large walk-in cooler to accommodate farm needs as well as provide extra storage for pantries. There are times when donations of cold stored items exceed a pantry’s capacity to hold them, and pantries end up having to decline donations. Extra cold storage space at TVFF ensures that produce doesn’t go to waste, and a steady supply is available to food pantries.

Twin Villages Foodbank Farm operates on a modification of the popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. This variation on the CSA model allows individuals, families and businesses to purchase a symbolic farm share which will then be donated for distribution to Lincoln County pantries. These sponsored farm shares are available for purchase at different levels. Full shares for $300 will “Feed a Family,” providing enough food to feed a family of four with a full season’s harvest of varied produce. A half share for $150 will “Feed a Couple” and $75 will “Feed an Individual.” Of course, donations of any size are most welcome.

The farm’s goal over the next couple of seasons is to reach 175 donated CSA shares annually to sustain the operation. TVFF plans to expand in coming seasons to produce over 40,000 pounds of nutrient-dense produce for donation each year.

The Damariscotta River Association* serves as fiscal sponsor and provides land for the farm, which is located at Coastal Rivers’ Great Salt Bay Farm. For more information or to purchase a CSA, please contact Sara at scawthon@twinvillagesfarm.org.

*Damariscotta River Association and Pemaquid Watershed Association unified in 2019 to become Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust.

DRA Fields to Feed the Hungry

Posted by Sara Cawthon on
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DRA Fields to Feed the Hungry

November 29, 2015

The summer of 2016 brings renewed agricultural life to Damariscotta River Association’s Great Salt Bay Farm,* which is host to Megan Taft and Sara Cawthon’s newly established Twin Villages Foodbank Farm. As part of a regional effort to address hunger in Midcoast Maine, two acres of DRA’s Great Salt Bay Farm will be cultivated to grow crops for distribution at the Ecumenical Food Pantry and other Lincoln County pantries and low-income food programs.

Twin Villages Foodbank Farm is the culmination of on-going conversations among the DRA, local farmers and regional partners including Lincoln County Food Council, FARMS, the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program, and the Ecumenical Food Pantry.

Cultivating the fields at DRA’s Great Salt Bay Farm honors the history of the farm by returning a portion of the land back to active agricultural production, while significantly increasing access to fresh, local produce for families from our neighboring communities. The opportunity to reestablish crop production at the farm is a powerful reminder that the health of our lands, water and people are closely linked.

Cawthon and Taft first approached the DRA with the idea of cultivating a foodbank farm after visiting the Ecumenical Food Pantry and talking with other regional partners about the need for increasing the availability and quality of fresh foods to regional food pantries. It was clear that while effort is made to provide families with fresh produce, additional work is needed to provide an adequate supply of fresh, nutritious foods. Twin Villages Foodbank Farm will produce a diverse mix of fresh vegetables which will provide over 20,000 pounds of nutritionally dense produce this season.

One and a half acres have already been prepared at the farm, and cold weather crop seedlings are thriving in a Unity College greenhouse, to be planted in late April. Start-up funding has been received in the form of two grants, one from the Horizon Foundation and the other from the Quimby Family Foundation. Additionally, individual supporters are stepping up to contribute funds to the farm through sponsored “CSA Shares.”

The farm will operate on a modification of the popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, where individuals, families and businesses can purchase a farm share which would then be donated for distribution to Lincoln County pantries. These sponsored farm shares are available for purchase at different levels. Full shares for $300 will “Feed a Family,” providing a family of four with a full season’s harvest of varied produce. A half share for $150 will “Feed a Couple.”

DRA Executive Director Steven Hufnagel notes, “We are thrilled to provide the space and organizational support for such capable farmers to address a pressing problem in our community. Coastal Rivers lands serve the region and its people in so many ways, and we’ve played a role in promoting local agriculture through our conservation activities, but this project couldn’t be more direct or tangible in its benefits.”

Cawthon and Taft have a wide range of agricultural experiences in New England and the Midwest. They have operated their own CSA farm, founded and worked for a growers’ cooperative supporting disadvantaged farmers, helped start a beginner farm incubator, and have worked with several educational food and farm programs.

Cawthon holds a Master of Science degree from Antioch University in Environmental Studies with a focus on agriculture and has most recently served as the Bowdoin College Organic Garden Manager. Taft holds a Master in Education degree in Social Justice Education with a concentration in Food Justice and Access.

For questions or more information about Twin Villages Foodbank Farm email TVFF at scawthon@twinvillagesfarm.org.

*Damariscotta River Association and Pemaquid Watershed Association unified in 2019 to become Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust.