Our vision is recreating a local food system that works for everyone in the Greater Gardner Winchendon Region (GGWR)
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Growing Places is a non-profit focused social and environmental justice in North Central Massachusetts food systems, focusing on five food desert communities (Winchendon, Gardner, Fitchburg, Leominster and Clinton) which have particularly high rates of chronic disease and poor health outcomes. As a part of the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) working group of the Community Health Network of North Central Massachusetts (CHNA9), Growing Places was a part of a (2015-2018) assessment to understand why these food deserts exist, prioritize the greatest need, address that need, acquire resources and finally, collectively implement solutions with communities. As part of the assessment, more than 1,000 healthy food access surveys were conducted in the same five food desert communities in North Central Massachusetts. Winchendon was identified as having the greatest need. Since then, Growing Places has worked to build partnerships in the Greater Gardner/Winchendon Region. We host youth development and STEM education programs, manage distribution of produce from community gardens to the local food pantry that serves more than 500 people (5% of the population), and bring our mobile market to various locations in our chosen place. To address the root cause of the region`s lack of control over their health destiny, Growing Places brought together a group of organizations and community members in the region in August 2019. This includes providing support to groups of community members called CIRCL groups which are helping to get the project moving on the ground. With the founding of this coalition came the HEAL Winchendon Food Project, an initiative for Winchendon to reinvent its food system so everyone has access to whole, affordable food based in an interconnected and vibrant food economy. As the backbone organization for this project, Growing Places provides the organizational spine to catalyze collective action towards this project`s vision.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The Greater Gardner and Winchendon Region (GGWR) is comprised of seven communities with ~56,000 residents. Two communities, Gardner and Winchendon, house 56% of the population and its residents face insurmountable challenges with regards to accessing healthy food which is resulting in extremely high rates of nutrition-related chronic conditions and mortality. GGWR’s remaining five communities (Ashburnham, Hubbardston, Phillipston, Templeton and Westminster) all have a population under 10,000. On average, residents in these small rural are communities in a much better economic position than those in Gardner and Winchendon, but still have limited access to healthy food and almost non-existent public transportation infrastructure; 50% of individuals in the area do not have cars. As a region, GGWR is comprised of land prime for agriculture, but 33% of individuals identify as food insecure and 15% of individuals are shopping at dollar stores and convenience stores. Blue collar residents with little education struggle to find employment within their community, but have the potential to access new opportunities that complement their skills-sets. Complicating matters, the two grocery stores that do exist have the highest price points in the state for their chains and are located within downtown Gardner, far out of reach for residents without personal transportation in the perimeter of the city. The local food system is of little help. The small farmers market located outside of the downtown from May until October does not accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or MA’s Healthy Incentive Program (HIP) that doubles SNAP purchases at local retail food access points. Winchendon is home to just over 10,000 residents and is still on the downward spiral from the loss of its paper industry. Winchendon also has a deep agricultural history with home growing being common theme brought up in community meetings. Unfortunately, Winchendon is also now a food desert with the loss of its only supermarket in 2015. The town is geographically isolated and a USDA low-access census tract. Right now, residents can buy processed food at one of three local convenience stores (Family Dollar, Cumberland Farms and CVS), must drive 20 minutes either to Gardner, MA’s grocery stores or across state lines to NH where MA WIC (Women, Infant, and Children) benefits aren’t accepted. Despite local production infrastructure, Winchendon’s farmers market also does not accept SNAP or HIP. Unfortunately, farmers in these communities don’t sell their produce in the region since the selling opportunities are mainly wholesale (which is a scale many farms aren`t able to are don`t want at), and they can make more money in large affluent communities or around Boston. Based off stories shared from CIRCL group participants, social isolation and siloed communication is common, but dedication to growing a greater sense of community and greater access to education is also alive and well.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
In 2020, the Greater Gardner/Winchendon Region faces barriers to connecting with where their food comes from and contributing to regenerative impacts of the local food system. Some barriers are factors of the physical environment, including limited number of places to get nutritionally dense food, a lack of public transit infrastructure which potently sets back those who struggle to afford or do not have a car, and a lack of coordination of storage space for locally grown perishables. In Winchendon, another grocer considered establishing itself after its supermarket closed, but declined because it would have not seen enough customers to make its business model works. Furthermore, the price points in the region are some of the highest in the state for groceries, furthering inaccessibility for low-income residents, not all farmers markets and farm stands can accept SNAP and even less can accept HIP benefits, Senior and WIC coupons. One major consequence is high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and some cancers. There is also decreasing opportunities for small to mid-scale farmers, which are common in Massachusetts, to sell to the surround food desert and low food access communities. This is because most opportunities to sell are wholesale, which not all producers can or want to do, selling to long-range distributers, or selling more lucrative markets in Boston. Furthermore, farmers markets are highly variable in their reach and profits for each vendor. Small and mid-scale producers also face barriers with regards to packaging costs, including having the time and resources to implement reuse schemes and buy or develop biodegradable options, which results in more plastic and single use items generally being released into the environment. This all leaves small to mid-scale farms especially vulnerable to being bought up for development, increasing soil erosion (especially since many of these farms already use restorative practices like cover crops). Generational knowledge of how to grow, handle, process, and cook food is also not being passed on. This is emblematic of siloed communication and social isolation in the GGWR generally. When put together the GGWR in 2020 remains a disconnected food system with limited opportunities connect with nutritious food and multiple barriers to increasing sovereignty over this food`s production.
In 2050, if these challenges are left to proliferate, the food system will be further disconnected. There may be little to no small to mid-scale food production in the GGWR feeding into the region, which may further increase intensive the use of agricultural practices and transportation emissions, and stifle community led innovation. As less agricultural opportunities become available, less money may circulate in the local economy and more money may feed into national and multi-national dollar store chains, further limiting access to nutritious foods and worsening health outcomes.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our vision is a hub and spoke food system which for everyone, built on a foundational web of mutualistic partnerships. This system will provide a network full of outlets for producers of varying scales and types, as well individuals and retailers and institutions to connect to their food system. The hub and spoke will purchase and aggregate food from farmers and producers, large institutions that can buy in bulk, and tie in home growers and community gardens. This food will then be distributed from a physical hub space in the form of pre-prepped meal kits to spokes, places that are already relevant to the community. Churches, the YMCA and the Community Action Committee are examples that have been brought up in community meetings. The meal kits will be integrated with a mobile farmers market, which has the potential to buy at largely varied scales, and direct purchases from the hub-and-spoke. Any purchases from the hub [SE1] could be made with SNAP and HIP benefits, as well as Senior and WIC coupons. Piloting at limited scale in Winchendon in year one, the hub-and-spoke food system will expand to the surrounding communities in the GGWR.
Using the six themes of the Prize as a framework, here is how this vision will address the challenges which the GGWR currently face.
Direct marketing which allows producers to own their narrative and express what is important to them, while fostering greater awareness in the region of different production and business practices, and their socio-ecological impacts
Events which showcase cooking talent and feature produce from the hub-and-spoke
Shared ownership models for value-added and agricultural production equipment
A platform for coordinating the use and repair of equipment
Utilizing spokes for multiple functions such as meal kit and direct order drop off/pick up, event space, storage (including pantry, refrigerated, and frozen), commercial kitchen space, drop off/pick up for reusable packaging and compost
Bulk purchasing agreements for biodegradable and compostable packaging, and re-use schemes
Education on regenerative practices amongst home growers/gardeners to preserve and enhance soil fertility and carbon sequestration, while contributing to socio-ecological resilience
Nutrition education included in outreach material and events
Prescriptions from the regions` health centers to vulnerable populations for vouchers that can be claimed for purchases at the meal kits or mobile market.
Increase local procurement and work with partners to fund mobile market/meal kit vouchers for staff at local organizations
Advocate for increased and sustained HIP funding at a state level and SNAP benefits on a federal level
Sell indoor agriculture equipment, either for sale or through shared ownership model
Model integration of soil-based and indoor agriculture at the hubs and spokes for educational and production purposes
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
In our community vision, it begins by sourcing fresh, healthy food locally – through farms, hospitals, colleges, community gardens and more – and gathers that food in a central hub. Once there, the food is packaged into individual and family-size meal kits, with some of the foods already prepped for cooking (e.g., peeled and diced butternut squash). The meal kits then get sent to locations chosen by the community for easy access.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
The base of our system pyramid is regionalization and circular economy. Regionalization is bringing together the resources of municipalities to work towards a common goal. This framework is part of the base of our vision because it brings about coordination between municipalities who may not have the resources to achieve a regional project on their own and builds resilience since not all the resources, assets, and project responsibilities are dependent on one community. In reality, we all have an impact on and are impacted by food systems of many levels, including regional ones, and regionalization reflects that.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, circular economy has three core principles: “design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems” (Cities and Circular Economy for Food: Ellen MacArthur Foundation). This framework is also a part of our base because we believe that it is important for the community to build upon its assets, not just physical but social and cultural as well. The circular economy also builds on already existing assets by reusing material in its highest value form first. There are also parallels between the circular economy and ecosystem structures, including soil ecosystems. Cultivating vibrant food systems can learn a lot from the fertile soil food grows in.
Both regionalization and circular economy feed into the food system`s social and physical infrastructure, the next level up on our pyramid. This is the food system`s cultural, social, and physical assets and the connective tissue which links them together, such as material flows, flows of information, and social ties.
Building on our pyramid is our food system goals, the directions we envision the food system moving to in 2050. They are as follows:
- Key sectors in the GGWR food system are working together with common agenda to support a self-reliant food system
- GGWR has comprehensive food equity for its most vulnerable individuals and families through accessible and affordable fresh, nutritious food
- GGWR prioritizes an equitable, sustainable food system through local policies and community engagement and education
Growing from the bedrock of our vision`s system structure are solutions we envision for the Greater Gardner/Winchendon Region (GGWR), based on the visions we have heard from individual stakeholders and communities in the GGWR, through our involvement with the HEAL Winchendon Food Project, years of assessment as a part of CHNA9 and our involvement in the CHNA9`s Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) working group. We thank all the stakeholders who have shared their stories with us and look forward to hopefully having the opportunity to for this prize to contribute to the HEAL Winchendon Food Project and Growing Places` food justice work.
Mobilized and connected community collectively working to sustain the vision, with community silos broken, anchor institutions supporting residents and smaller organizations and businesses
A socially just regenerative culture where community members authentically support each other, local economy and environment
Built-in systems that support knowledge sharing for reciprocal learning that celebrate resident’s unique gifts and talents; includes greater awareness of how the food system functions, growing, cooking, the concept of seasonality and generational practices that are passed down
Cultural crops which adapt to the preferences of diverse communities and continuously broaden the public`s knowledge of what can grow sustainable in the region are readily available
A just and equitable food system that prioritizes all stakeholders in the local food system
Continually using resources at their highest value
Access for producers to markets that can accommodate a diversity of scales
Local residents are prioritized to support local business through economic empowerment
Shared ownership models and infrastructure in place which makes the resources accessible for everyone to live a quality of life which allows agricultural opportunities for people to contribute to the livelihood they want to live regardless of their socioeconomic status thus providing economic mobility.
A live job board or connection to a service is available which allows producers to post seasonal work and volunteer opportunities, with position duties set clearly and managed the producers
Closed loop systems that eliminate toxic and nonrenewable materials (packaging), sourcing from regenerative production in the GGWR as much as possible
A network of interchangeable food packaging that is reused at multiple business and organization that serve food, with established cleaning and distribution services equitably available
Integrated systems that promote sustainable and regenerative production practices (e.g., no-till, cover cropping, carbon sequestration, biodiversity) are a adopted practice among producers of diverse scales
Efficient distribution that runs on renewable energy sources
Adaptable network of food businesses that automatically respond to any by-product creation
A food is medicine culture that connects resident’s health and well-being to what they eat
Prescriptions to vulnerable populations (including low-income older adults and single parent community members) from the regions` health centers for vouchers that can be claimed for purchases at the meal kits or mobile market.
Education about the food-health connection (physical and environmental) to vulnerable populations in a fun and participatory way
Empowering residents to have agency over their health through their nutrition/diet
The healthy choice is the easy and equitable choice for all residents
Land-use is prioritized for community resiliency
Local government and economic drivers in the local food system are connected and mutually reinforce each other’s goals
Environmental externalities are incorporated into local food procurement and retail sales
Local businesses prioritize local first
Equitable purchasing practices are supported within all community sectors through big and small purchases
There are regional food handling safety regulations
Sustainable growing practices (aquaponic and hydroponics) are used to support year-round growing
Innovative growing systems are complementary on human assets