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.

Alice Waters is not often speechless. The woman who has been at the forefront of the local food revolution, founded one of the country’s most celebrated restaurants (Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California) and who has brought gardens into schoolyards across the country typically has a lot to say—especially when discussing her passion for all that is fresh, local and seasonal. But on an autumn morning in Concord, Massachusetts, Alice Waters is so moved by what she sees that she can hardly find her words.

“I just can’t believe it,” she says, as she meanders around Gaining Ground farm’s nine acres, stepping on footstones beside the perennial herb garden and glancing up at tall, dried stalks of sunflowers. “A farm that gives away not just some, but all of its food. That’s just so beautiful.”

It’s not every day that a farm attracts a culinary celebrity like Waters. But Gaining Ground is indeed unusual.

Waters was invited to Gaining Ground by its past president Stona Fitch and her friend Hamilton Fish (president of The Nation Institute, an organization devoted to the values of free speech), both of whom had a hunch she’d love the farm and its mission: to provide free fresh fruits and vegetables to those who can least afford them.

Not far from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote Walden, Gaining Ground is one of the oldest farms in America. It’s been in constant cultivation since the town of Concord was chartered in 1635 and farmed by Native Americans for many years before European settlers arrived. More than 1,200 people of all ages and walks of life volunteer here each growing season to not only plant, tend and harvest organic crops—from fresh strawberries to butternut squash, radishes and rutabaga—but also to deliver every last pound of the 20,000 cultivated to the area’s needy within 24 hours after harvest.

One of the 10 or so meal programs that benefits from Gaining Ground’s harvest is an historic church in Concord Center that hosts “Open Table” every Thursday, serving supper to about 125 and giving away bags of food, including the farm’s fresh, organic produce. On a recent Thursday, it was the boxfuls of fresh leeks that caught the eye of Lisa Richards, who is both a volunteer and, along with her husband and seven children, a guest. “It’s always exciting to see what’s new,” she says, adding: “We all love the fresh, local veggies, not just because they taste good, but also because it’s nice to feel supported and that we are important enough for the stuff at the top of the line, rather than at the bottom. It makes us feel like we matter.”

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