By Jennifer Wolcott, November/December 2009
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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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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Wieloch is the first to admit that Gaining Ground, as a nonprofit organization, is in a financially unique position. Situated in an affluent community with a rich agricultural history, her farm is blessed by a savvy fundraising team that has been successful in drumming up generous grants and donations from individuals and corporations that care deeply about helping to preserve Concord’s farming tradition and giving to those less fortunate.
The staff at Gaining Ground includes five paid employees, says Wieloch (one of two year-rounders at the farm), for what seems like “an endless amount of work.” But it’s worth every minute, she adds. “Our mission is huge,” she says, “but as important as it is, this is also a very playful place, where we try to incorporate fun into every task, and if a volunteer accidentally weeds out half of our turnips, that’s OK.”
It’s that combination of joyful collaboration and serious intent that makes Gaining Ground such a draw for volunteers. “If something is well done and done with a sense of humanity, whether in New Orleans, a vacant lot in Brooklyn or valuable farmland in Concord,” says Waters, “people feel hopeful and they want to contribute.”
For now, that sense of hope and humanity is centered around Thanksgiving and preparing for that heartwarming final delivery.
“Thanksgiving symbolizes the ultimate act of growing food and then offering it to people who don’t have much,” says Waters, adding: “Not just any food, but food that is truly beautiful, nourishing and real.”
For Waters herself, Thanksgiving is all about going back to the land, literally. She traditionally celebrates with friends who share her love of fresh food, even foraging for a meal. So before sitting down at the table, she will head into the woods, looking for wild mushrooms or another nearby treasure to complement the rest of the feast, which typically includes Brussels sprouts, acorn squash, a heritage turkey and geese from one of her favorite local farms. Waters will likely make her Wild Mushroom Stuffing and, for dessert, her favorite Upside-Down Cranberry Cake. But even for this author of numerous cookbooks, it’s not the recipes that matter most.
“More important than any recipe or cooking method is the source of ingredients,” she says emphatically. “Where does it come from? That’s absolutely what counts most to me.”