LANESBOROUGH — On a Monday morning, Evelyn Harrington, 97, sits on her porch waiting for new friends to arrive.
The ambulance quietly pulls in as Harrington waves and smiles. Today it’s Jen Weber, Lanesborough's EMS director, and Kristen Tool, a local farmer, who hand Harrington a satchel with about six pounds of produce.
"What is in the bag?" asks Harrington.
"We have Brussels sprouts today. And I think carrots," said Tool.
"Ah," gasps Harrington.
"There's a butternut squash in there. I think a big one," Tool adds.
"And some lettuce of course." The lettuce is donated by the aquaponics greenhouse at the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction. It's a product Harrington and other seniors in town have been enjoying every week.
"Yeah! That's when we have salad every Monday night. That's the only time we do," said Harrington.
"Oh and some tomatoes," Tool says.
This weekly produce delivery to Lanesborough seniors, called the Community Produce Program, began in 2020. Farmers markets had closed abruptly, cutting local farmers from a key source of revenue. Seniors were told to avoid stores to avoid exposure to the virus.
Though pandemic conditions have changed, the initiative’s founder, Tool, continued the program as a way to foster community and to serve the town's elders, who are 80 years old, on average, and don’t drive a lot. It operates within a nonprofit called Heart & Soil Collective founded by Tool and her husband, Chris Wheeler.
The ambulance deliveries
The community-building aspect was strengthened this year when the ambulance crew joined as volunteers. When Tool posted her request for help on the Lanesborough community group on Facebook, she hoped to find individuals willing to help out.
Weber saw a way to fulfill the EMS’ mission to be present in the community. “We just use it as a community outreach, something that we can do to make ourselves available during the time that we're not on calls,” she said.
Weber sees value in having town residents get to know members of the ambulance team — before they need their care.
“We go to the school in the morning, hang out with the kids,” she said. "We're reaching out from the youngest to the oldest in the community and just trying to be that face that's not as scary when something scary [happens].”
The food deliveries have also introduced residents to new members of the ambulance crew. “Bringing people in that weren't part of the ambulance already, or are from different communities, it's been nice for them to be able to get to know the seniors and understand how the community works,” said Weber.
She says in the event of emergencies, people are happy to see a familiar face. “Once you walk in, they're like, ‘Oh my God, it's you, Jen. I'm so happy that it's you.’ It just brings the level of anxiety down,” she said.
Weber hopes that familiarity can help people hesitate less in reaching out. “A lot of seniors don't like calling us. ‘[They say] I’m so sorry I have bothered you.’ You're never bothering me. I don't mind coming, I'd rather come in and have it be nothing than the other way,” Weber said.
Twenty-four households participated this year. EMTs have figured out a way to ensure that their participation doesn’t interfere with emergencies. “We break it up into just a few deliveries, and then we'll come back for more bags, so we're not taking up the ambulance space in the back,” she said.
Tool says that most days, the food deliveries take an hour. Sometimes the crew members pause, though, to engage with participants in a more meaningful way.
“There was one week where two of the seniors that I delivered to both had just had medical emergencies that weekend or the night before,” said Tool. “They just needed somebody to be there and listen to them for a while.”
For all seniors
Initially, Tool named the program “Free Produce.” That didn’t work, she found, because some people were embarrassed to be getting something for free — or thought someone else might need it more.
Weber says those views hinder participation in programs for seniors, like lunches, which allow participants to donate what they can as payment. “Some people think ‘I don't really need to do that. Maybe there's somebody else that needs that seat,’” said Weber.
Tool renamed her effort the “Community Produce Program.”
Tool says the program is open to seniors regardless of their financial means. “It's not like you have to show us your tax return in order to qualify for this program,” she said. “I would never ask someone to prove to me that they need what I'm offering if they sign up and then they're choosing to need it.”
Framing it as a community program helped attract more participants, growing it from eight to the current two dozen households, mostly through word of mouth.
Kate Pike, a farmer at Holiday Brook, says the program has eliminated all the vegetable waste after the Pittsfield's farmers market on Saturdays.
"Sometimes, on Monday, we'd try to find a wholesale account. This takes the legwork out, knowing Kristen [Tool] is going to be here every Monday morning. It doesn't have to go to the pigs in the end," she said.
Pike feels it's important to make fresh food accessible. "The community members she's reaching out to, they don't all drive. They can't always get to the farmers market. [Without] the door-to-door service that she's providing we wouldn't be able to reach those customers," she said.
As it is often the case with nonprofit efforts, fundraising is a challenge to sustainability.
Tool says she needs $4,000 to cover the costs of produce. There are also expenses from administrative work and packing materials.
The first year, the program was financed through crowdfunding, which helped her keep her farm afloat. The produce came in part from her own Olsen Farm, as she found herself with too much produce and no way to sell or distribute it.
Some fruits and vegetables came from neighbors who, due to COVID-19, were focusing on their home gardens and donated fruits and vegetables.
The second year, the program was paid for through different fundraisers that saved up the money throughout the year, as well as an online craft show with local vendors. The produce came from the Holiday Brook Farm in Dalton and Windy Ridge Farm in Hawley, in Franklin County, as well as a couple of smaller farms.
This year, the program nearly didn’t happen. But at the last minute, Tool was awarded an $8,600 grant from AARP. That’s helped cover the costs and set money aside for the next deliveries. Buying all produce only from Holiday Brook Farm has also simplified the logistics.
Tool says she’s expecting funding sources to dry out. “There were just a lot more grants available. [Especially] in food security, in response to COVID. I don't think a lot of those programs are continuing now,” she said.
After 17 weeks, this is the last time the program will be delivering produce this year. But Tool hopes to extend it into the winter with soup delivery. She says it’d be a great way to reduce waste, since farms have produce that's not really shelf stable.
Weber is enthusiastic about the idea. “The new ambulance has four wheel drive so we can truck through the snow!” she said.
Holiday Brook Farm has an industrial kitchen that is certified Tool could make soup in.
But fundraising is still an issue. “Right now my brain is so fried from trying to wrap up all this. I haven't really thought about the next steps,” said Tool, who also leads the Police Station Committee.
A key to ensuring the program’s sustainability is avoiding burnout. “Trust me, [Tool] does the majority of the work. It shows up ready to be delivered here, we just put in the miles,” said Weber.
Tool would like to expand to other towns, maybe Dalton, since she has worked with the Holiday Brook Farm. However, she is aware scaling up can be dangerous. “I don't want it to be something that gets too big, too fast and then fails,” she said.
She has a vision for her project, but the program’s sustainability depends on others participating more — and her doing a little less. "Next year I'll need steady volunteers on top of the EMS crew, if they choose to volunteer again," said Tool.