Giving Back: A Harvest Dinner

By Jennifer Wolcott, November/December 2009

Not far from where the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving, Alice Waters visits a farm that shares the harvest in an unusual way.

In recent years, with the economic downturn, the numbers of needy showing up at local food pantries and various meal programs have swelled. At Open Table’s two locations, the number of guests has increased 25 percent just in the past year, according to board member Linda Escobedo. “This is right in step with the rising need for food assistance in Massachusetts and, I believe, across the nation,” she says.

Indeed, Project Bread, the leading antihunger organization in Massachusetts, best known for its annual walk for hunger, estimates that more than 522,000 people in the state are “food insecure.” Calls to its hotline surged 61 percent for the first quarter of this year as compared with the same period in 2008. “We are getting more of every kind of caller, including those from college-educated professionals who say they ‘never thought they’d have to ask for help,’” says Rita Guastella, director of communications.

Gaining Ground has also noticed an uptick in demand. “More pantries have called asking for a relationship,” says head farmer Verena Wieloch. For example, she adds, Concord Food for Families, a food-distribution program, provided produce to a mere 15 families when it began in 2003. This season, an average of 30 people have shown up each Saturday for their cabbage, beets and more. And Gaining Ground just keeps on giving—an act that, in these economic times and during this season of Thanksgiving, is especially valued.

The Pilgrims and Wampanoag People certainly would have approved. They set the tone at Plymouth Rock, not far from here, sharing their fall harvest back in 1621, and today Thanksgiving is one of America’s most beloved, humanitarian and, of course, delicious holidays.

Back then, quality food didn’t come with a lofty price tag. Waters often bristles at the commonly held notion that organic food is expensive and therefore only accessible to an elite few. “Good food is a right, not a privilege—and also a pleasure,” she says, as she savors a handful of late-fall raspberries just picked and delivered to her by a group of schoolchildren who happen to be visiting the farm that morning. “These are the best raspberries I’ve ever tasted,” she tells them, switching from a tone that is rather businesslike to one that is downright dreamy.

“Typically food pantries are given awful, third-rate vegetables,” says Wieloch. “What we’re donating is the best you can get. People seem to really appreciate the flavor and the quality.”

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