hunger in highlands

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It started as a lark.

Peter Davoren liked antique tractors, but once he got his hands on one, he realized that he might as well use it. Soon he was cutting hay around Philipstown, restoring friends’ fields, feeding their livestock. “It was just for fun,” says Stacey Farley, his wife. They transitioned from feeding animals to feeding people, and Davoren Farm was born.

Davoren and Farley farmed around Philipstown, growing vegetables, putting their children — and then their children’s friends — to work. Members of the Philipstown Garden Club volunteered. The couple leased 10 acres in Garrison across Route 9D from Boscobel and built a barn. They began selling to restaurants and set up a pop-up stand that attracted loyal customers. Davoren continued to work full-time in construction, and Farley in the art world. They still do. “We all have other jobs,” says Farley, who also serves on an advisory board for this newspaper.

Then came March 2020, and it wasn’t a lark anymore.

“The whole world changed,” says Farley. “So we shifted.”

Although Davoren Farm does not operate as a nonprofit (Farley jokes that it’s a “not for-profit”), when the pandemic shutdown began, its co-owners decided they would give away their harvest.

Nearly two years later, that continues. Most of the food is donated to Fareground in Beacon and Fred’s Pantry in Peekskill, two organizations fighting food insecurity. The remainder is sold at the farm stand, with the proceeds given to the Philipstown Food Pantry and the town’s food assistance program. The food they sold to restaurants is now donated to restaurants. “They’re hurting just as much, just in a different way,” says Farley.

“We see it as a form of mutual aid,” explains Lukas Lahey, the farm’s one full-time employee, who was hired shortly before the pandemic shutdown.

Lukas Lahey and Stacey Farley
Lukas Lahey and Stacey Farley of Davoren Farm (Photo by B. Cronin)

It is difficult to think of something that has killed 800,000 Americans and counting as having a silver lining. But in the early months of the pandemic, Americans were united in their desire to help those who were suffering.

“We’ve seen with COVID a lot of the underlying [societal] problems bubbling to the surface,” says Lahey. “Now we’re facing them and needing to do something about them.”

As the lines at food banks swelled, the way that the U.S. addresses hunger, or “food insecurity,” was reconsidered. What if it wasn’t so hard to get help? What if people were given fresh and healthy food instead of junk that contributes to chronic health issues?

For those already working in food insecurity, it was a validation of what they’ve been saying for years. But for those who were new to it, it was an eye-opener. What could survive the pandemic is a new approach to feeding the hungry.

“The need isn’t going away,” Farley says as we walk through the farm fields on a warm December day. “It’s been hiding in plain sight. But we are committed to this for the foreseeable future.”

Feeding the hungry is an agricultural act

From Route 9D, the fields appear to be bare. But up close, you can see the stubby cover crops that were planted in the fall, after the harvest.

These crops will help aerate the soil and restore nutrients until the winter fells them, Lahey explains. In the spring, they’ll be tilled into the ground to regenerate the soil. Instead of planting one cover crop, the farm is experimenting with mingling several of them. “There’s things that the plants are doing together that you might not take into account,” he explains. “But the sum is greater than the parts.”

In the panic of the pandemic’s early days, Maggie Cheney of Rock Steady Farm in Millerton saw other farmers attempting to fundraise, get food to those in their communities who were being impacted, and continue to farm, all at the same time. Behind the goodwill, “there was a lot of chaos and confusion,” she recalls.

Maggie Cheney
Maggie Cheney of Rock Steady Farm (Photo by Jennifer Young)

Founded in 2015, Rock Steady is a for-profit farm with a 500-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. But by partnering with the nonprofit Watershed Center, it also can fundraise to address food insecurity and social justice issues. With the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming in Philipstown and other local farmers, Cheney helped create what became the Food Sovereignty Fund.

The idea was to allow farmers to support their communities without having to become a nonprofit or spend more time fundraising than farming. The fund pays farmers to grow produce that is donated to food pantries and organizations that distribute it to those in need. In a similar initiative, Common Ground Farm in Wappingers receives a grant each year from Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley that allows it to donate half of its harvest. And last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul enacted a law to cement into place Nourish New York, which had been created during the pandemic to pay farmers to grow food that is donated.

However, Common Ground Farm is a nonprofit, and Nourish New York is mostly designed for larger farms. The hope is the Food Sovereignty Fund will fill in the gaps to include smaller, for-profit farms.

The fund recruits farmers who identify with communities that have historically been discouraged from farming or disproportionately affected by hunger, such as those who are minorities, gay or female.

Select farmers are matched with a project in their community that addresses food insecurity and paid to grow food across the seasons. The farms also receive support and technical assistance from Glynwood.

“The long-term goal is that we’ll have regional hubs that can overlap and work together to move food effectively around when there are changes in the year or changes in production, instead of the centralized system that failed us during the pandemic,” explains Megan Larmer, who coordinates the program for Glynwood. “We want to get people to see this as a thing that farmers ought to be paid for, and eaters have a right to the food that they’re able to produce.

“If the people of Putnam and Dutchess counties got to choose who got to eat the beautiful food that our farmers grow, it wouldn’t only be the wealthiest among us.”

The fund also hopes to improve the nutritional value of the food that is distributed so it will “keep them well enough to participate in life fully,” Larmer says. “You look at the chronic-disease charts for the people who have to rely on emergency feeding systems over years, and for children, and they’re devastating.”

Martin Rodriguez and Gaudencia Martinez
Martin Rodriguez and Gaudencia Martinez of Mimomex Farm grow food for Glynwood’s Food Sovereignty Fund (Photo by Jennifer Young)

Much of the food supplied to emergency feeding programs across the country is donated by grocery manufacturers as tax write-offs, Larmer says. Creating that excess processed food is a waste, including of the petroleum it takes to deliver it. “If we can end the reliance on that donation chain, then it’s no longer good business [for corporations], and we give the advantage to the types of food that we actually want to see in the world,” she says.

Cheney says the pandemic brought the problem of food insecurity to light to the public. “People seeing lines at food pantries had a huge impact in terms of their generosity,” Cheney says. “People start to connect the dots, especially in polarized communities such as the Hudson Valley and New York City where there’s incredible wealth gaps and people don’t actually realize how food insecure many people are, including people living right next door.”

‘There’s a lot we can do now’

The cover crop has already started to die back at Common Ground Farm, but the red Russian kale is hanging on thanks to an unusually warm December.

Katie Speicher, who just finished her first season as farm manager, points out which fields in the crop rotation are slated to lay fallow next year in order to give the soil a chance to recover.

“We’ve got great soil for farming,” she says, “It’s all a sandy loam so it’s got excellent drainage, which is what you want, especially in a year like this.” Even with the torrential rains that slammed the Hudson Valley this past year, and being farmed productively for 20 years, the soil continues to provide.

When Common Ground started in 2001, it was a trailblazer. Along with the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and the Phillies Bridge Farm Project in Gardiner, it introduced the Hudson Valley to the idea of the CSA, which had originated in the early 1980s when Booker Whatley, a professor of agriculture at Tuskegee University, thought it could keep Black farmers from losing their livelihoods.

Whatley argued that small farms could be made more profitable if they offered memberships: People (“city folks, mostly,” he said at the time) would pay a fee at the beginning of a growing season in exchange for a share of the bounty.

Katie Speicher
Katie Speicher of Common Ground Farm with kale that is bagged for distribution to the backpack program for the Beacon City School District. (Photo by Erika Rincon)

Twenty years after Common Ground began, there are more than 110 CSAs in the Hudson Valley. But for Common Ground, it was a lot of work — work that took away from other areas of focus. The farm’s mission had been “to preserve the heritage of farming in the Hudson Valley,” explains Sember Weinman, its executive director. But over its first 10 years, Common Ground came to realize that what was becoming known as the “food movement” — a push for more local, sustainable agriculture — was not worth much if only the wealthy could afford it.

“There are two food systems,” says Larmer at Glynwood. “The one you can afford to pay for, and the one you just have to take if you’re facing any kind of challenges in your life. There needs to be just one food system.”

When Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, Common Ground was able to raise funds to recover. For-profit farms had it harder. That prompted Common Ground to reconsider its CSA, concluding it was “competing with the people we want to help: other farms.”

It began blazing a new trail. The CSA was sent to Obercreek Farm, a new, for-profit operation 4 miles down the road. “The CSA was taking up all of our resources,” said Weinman. “Pulling that out, we were like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot we can do now.’”

Thanks to the grant that allows them to donate half of their produce, the farm contributes to eight feeding programs. Working with Karen Pagano of the Beacon City School District, they’ve gotten their food into the cafeterias and run a “backpack program” in which students take bags full of food home on the weekends. “We have a lot of farm-to-school educational programming, but it’s meaningless unless kids actually have access to that food,” says Weinman.

Eating at School

For many lower-income students in the Highlands who face food insecurity, school breakfast and lunch are vital.

About 37 percent public school students in grades K-12 in Dutchess and 25 percent of those in Putnam receive free or reduced-price school meals. To qualify, a family of four must earn less than $34,450 annually for free meals and $49,025 annually for reduced prices. To prevent shaming, state law does not allow districts to identify which students receive subsidized meals.

The federal program that pays for these meals is the second-largest nutrition assistance program, behind food stamps. During the pandemic, the federal government has been paying for every school meal in an effort to reach more of the estimated 12 million students who are chronically hungry.

Karen Pagano is the food services director for the Beacon City School District. She spoke recently about her experiences with Zach Rodgers for his podcast Beaconites; her responses have been edited here for brevity.

Karen Pagano
Karen Pagano (Photo by Meredith Heuer)

Do you see food insecurity issues with students?

There are subtle signs: children who are always first in line at breakfast; children taking as much as they are permitted each meal; children stuffing their backpacks with non-perishables; students showing up at the nurse’s office hungry at the start of the day. Common Ground Farm has worked on weekend distribution to some fragile families to help with non-school days. That is where the insecurities become more observable. We were thrilled that the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] funded all school meals this year because it removed the stigma of receiving free meals. Participation has increased dramatically this year as a result.

How is this year different from last year?

Last year because of the shutdown we were distributing meals to homes, people were picking up meals and we were serving in the cafeterias [when students returned late in the year]. Our concern this year is the supply chain. When you’re serving 2,000 meals a day, you have to have the product in house significantly earlier than when you’re preparing it, and for our vendors to cancel orders at the last minute throws a curve.

How have you compensated for shortages?

In September we made a connection with a New York producer of beef and, because I had my beef order slashed from the government, I committed to buy thousands of pounds. We did a farm-to-school program in the second week in October featuring all New York products. Thinking outside the box has put us in a better position to support the local economy.

There are growers in the region that are learning to provide opportunities for us, as well, so I’m starting to plug into that. That’s the direction I have to go because our typical sources are just not there.

How have you deployed farm-to-school?

Common Ground provides produce and we partner with Land to Learn, which was previously Hudson Valley Seed. Those organizations approached me, knowing that a school district that serves 2,000 meals a day has a lot more purchasing power than a restaurant that serves 96. The idea was to engage the students and the kitchens and food service operations in sustaining Hudson Valley producers.

We had some students who had never seen anything grow in the ground. They had to first engage the students to be accepting of local products, and then we had to engage the staff to prepare local products and families to buy lunches. This has all been developing over the last five to six years. We’re hoping to continue with the thought in mind that our students have already been exposed to all this. They have seen the gardens. They are familiar with local products and therefore accepting of the menu changes [to freshly made meals].

Making food from scratch must take more labor.

It had to be done in baby steps. I couldn’t just change every menu every day and expect my staff to be able to manufacture that in the 45 minutes we serve students. So we put a cook at every school; a lot of schools will just have food service workers opening an oven. It’s been hard this year with the numbers of students who are participating, but we’re finding that the items we’re making from scratch are what they are enjoying.

How long do you think the supply crunch will last?

Food has a cycle. Poultry takes 12 weeks from the hatching to harvesting, followed by the process that takes the chicken to the table. When that supply chain is severed, it has a long-lasting impact, because agriculture grows in long stretches of time. Now we’ve missed a growing season, so we have to find something that can be either grown more rapidly or another location. You also rely on drivers; truckers are few and far between. Even if my vendors have a product, they might not get it to me for two weeks. If I see something that has availability in high quantities, we stuff our freezers.

Do you coordinate with other schools?

I work with a coalition of about 20 schools in the Hudson Valley. I’m the president. We try to get ahead of problems. We’re working on a platform to consolidate purchasing to make it more sustainable for vendors, suppliers and us. It’s a struggle, but it’s important because I don’t see this ending in the short term.

The farm also helps run the Beacon Farmers Market and helped start the Newburgh Farmers Market, both of which accept food stamps. In fact, customers are allowed to double the value of their federal benefits when purchasing produce to make it affordable and change the perception, says Weinman, that “farmers markets are for wealthy white people.”

Nothing goes to waste. Common Ground secured another grant that allows it to purchase unsold produce from vendors at both markets each week to donate to emergency feeding programs.

Who benefits?

Whatever happens in the fight against food insecurity in the years ahead, it will be tied to the fate of smaller local farms. At Common Ground Farm, Speicher believes that, one way or another, because of climate change and an increasingly unstable world, change is going to come.

“Whether we choose to do it now or it’s forced upon us, we are going to face drastic food systems change within the next 10 to 20 years,” she says during a 55-degree day in mid-December. “From a federal standpoint, a smart way to go about it would be to redirect all the farm subsidies for corn and soy and invest in nutritious food that stays domestic, and invest in people who want to farm.”

At Davoren Farm, Lahey points out that the average age of the American farmer is 57.5 years and getting older. Many farmers do not have heirs willing to take over, or a succession plan.

“It’s going to be the largest non-wartime transfer of land in human history,” he predicts. Work will need to be done to make sure farms remain farms, preferably small and under local control. He’d also like to see municipalities give more material and educational support so that people can take food production into their own hands.

“If people are able to have two chickens and a small backyard garden plot, you can feed any scrap food to the chickens, you get fresh eggs regularly. And if you have a community doing that you can create some serious resilience against any screw-ups in supply lines,” he says. “I know people who keep two chickens in their apartment. It’s a little kooky, but it can be done.”

Feliciano Gonzalez of Fresh Radish Farm grows food for Glynwood’s Food Sovereignty Fund. (Photo by Jennifer Young)

At Rock Steady Farm, Cheney points out that both food insecurity and small-farm insecurity are problems with the same roots. Affordable housing is an often-overlooked factor when it comes to discussing farms, but both Rock Steady and Common Ground have had problems attracting staff who can afford to live in the Hudson Valley.

Lack of medical care is another problem across the board. “It’s such a hard thing for small farms who run on tiny margins to afford good health care for their employees,” Cheney says. “It’s something we’re striving for but we’re 6 years old and we still haven’t gotten there.” It can be especially challenging in rural areas that lack clinics.

Anyone seeking to address hunger will inevitably run into the fact that food insecurity exists, and continues to exist, because of policy failures, not personal failures. Cheney urges people not to fault others for their food choices or circumstances, but instead look at the bigger picture. Who benefits from healthy food being scarce and inaccessible? If healthy food remains out of the reach of many, then who gets to live long and healthy lives and who doesn’t?

“There needs to be less focus on individual responsibility and more on the system,” Cheney says. “That’s the most important piece to understanding this.”

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Behind The Story

Type: Investigative / Enterprise

Investigative / Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

The Skidmore College graduate has reported for The Current since 2014 and writes the "Out There" column. Location: Beacon. Languages: English. Areas of Expertise: Environment, outdoors