Real Food Share Wants You Getting Your Hands Dirty To Feed Newtown Neighbors
To help ensure food safety and to foster farm to table connections through the remainder of the COVID-19 emergency and beyond, Governor Ned Lamont announced April 24 he was appointing state Agricultural Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt to head up a task force to help mitigate food insecurity, especially around the state’s most vulnerable populations.
But here in Newtown, a growing number of supporters and volunteers at Real Food Share (RealFoodShare.org) have been doing the same work for over two years.
In an expanding operation on the grounds of Sticks and Stones Farm in Botsford, and now occupying garden space at the Catherine Violet Hubbard Sanctuary near Fairfield Hills, organization founder Sean Fitzpatrick expects to see the group’s fresh bounty increase exponentially from the 800 pounds of food delivered primarily to FAITH Food Pantry in 2019, to over 10,000 pounds by the end of 2020.
The first round of early spring crops are already in the ground, and by November, the community supported garden in Botsford will likely yield four separate harvests. At the same time, veggies and herbs being grown at the CVH sanctuary could produce two to three rounds of fresh locally grown food going to families and individuals in Newtown who need it the most.
“After delivering around 800 pounds of fresh food last year, we spent the off season figuring out how to seriously up our game,” Fitzpatrick said during a recent Saturday morning break from his work at the Botsford garden plot, which stretches around the length and width of a football field.
According to FeedingAmerica.org, when people don’t have enough food or have to choose inexpensive foods with low-nutritional value, it can seriously impact their health. And once the cycle of poor diet and poor health begins, it can be hard to break.
That’s a cycle Fitzpatrick hopes to defeat for the price of some seeds, a few well utilized donations, and a passionate volunteer base whose sweat equity has the potential of changing many local lives for the better.
Newtown currently has approximately four percent of its population in poverty with almost 30 percent expressing difficulty covering basic living expenses, Fitzpatrick related. Food security is a complex and fluid concept to understand, so he is aiming to see Real Food Share maximizing local resources to provide more access to healthy food.
“Through our new partnership with the Hubbard sanctuary, and a few improvements here, we have the land to generate over 10,000 pounds of produce — now we just needs the hands to get dirty and make it all happen,” he said. Over the next two to three weeks, Real Food Share has devised an appropriate way to get the necessary assistance to complete prepping planting beds at both locations.
Safe, Productive Space
“We have enough space so a few individuals or families can all be working at the same time,” Fitzpatrick said. “By donating as little as an hour a week, if we just get a couple dozen volunteers we can easily accomplish our production goal of donating 100 baskets of fresh produce every week during the growing season.”
With spinach and other cool weather crops already popping, he said the first harvest will be picked and on the way to local tables in time to get tomatoes going in virtually the same rows.
“We have hundreds of plants started in the greenhouse and 12 beds currently planted with peas, carrots, onions, radish, and parsnips,” Fitzpatrick said. “And we’re planting fruit bushes and asparagus at the Sanctuary. We have been able to manage the schedule while maintaining the recommendations for social distancing.”
If you don’t have a green thumb, or if you never raised fresh food before, no worries — Fitzpatrick will send you a customized video showing you exactly what to do during a one-hour volunteer slot. Then folks can continue if they choose, working through the fall at their own pace if desired.
“Sometimes we set up families through video demonstrations to work on their own, sometimes we work on opposite sides of the garden,” he said. “There will be plenty of opportunities to contribute in a safe way as the spring rolls around.”
This season, RealFoodShare earned a $15,000 matching grant commitment from Sustainable CT. Since the Match Fund’s launch in September of 2019 Sustainable CT has helped launch more than 40 projects in 30-plus municipalities, which have raised over $400,000.
The Match Fund was designed to support community-driven projects that foster resident engagement and build collaboration between residents and their local government. The Newtown Fruit Trail and Newtown Forest Association are also grantees of the fund.
The group just received word about a second grant through the Community Foundation of Fairfield County’s COVID-19 Fund.
Fitzpatrick said the next step is to bring on two paid summer interns, who will gain valuable experience helping run the operation, including a retail market stand at the Botsford farm.
Up at the CVH Sanctuary, founder Jenn Hubbard told The Newtown Bee that volunteers came from across the country in 2019 to construct a labyrinth of raised planting beds that will eventually produce food for wayward animals that will come to the facility. But in the meantime, the planting space will be supplementing Real Food Share’s efforts.
“We have one-third of the beds producing fruit, one-third producing vegetables, and the remaining space growing optimal flowers to sustain and increase our pollinators population,” Hubbard said.
The sanctuary, established in memory of Catherine — a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in 2012 — will attract numerous pollinators, but particularly Monarch butterflies. Jenn Hubbard explained that the facility is officially designated a Monarch Butterfly Waystation and will likely attract the beautiful insects to its fields full of various types of milkweed.
When asked about the new partnership, Hubbard said, "I can't think of anything closer to the heart of our mission. I mean, Sean is feeding people. You can't get much better than that."
Fitzpatrick said with the addition of the beds at the sanctuary, Real Food Share through its partnership with FAITH Food Pantry will by year’s end become an established community food hub. Besides the farm stand, plans are in the works to host culinary classes centered around the crops coming out of the ground during any given week.
Down On The Farm
One of the reasons Real Food Share was able to mount a four planting season this year is because they constructed a rustic hoop-style greenhouse where a number of plantings were able to get started back in February and early March. Materials were donated from Planters Choice Nursery and Shortt’s Farm.
The greenhouse beds were warmed through even the coldest nights by an ingenious compost heating system designed by volunteer Zachary Holly.
“We ran a coil inside the pile, which gets hot enough to heat water we then pump through tubing that runs under the beds to keep the ground warm enough to start the plants,” Fitzpatrick said. “The pump is powered by solar panels donated by Newtown based Solara Solar. So we have this really neat recycled system that helped us get things up and running a lot earlier this season.
“We’ve put in a ton of work to set up for a productive season. I’m very grateful for the team that has stepped up so far,” he added. “Volunteers are the most important part of these projects, so they should be the ones highlighted.”
Armed with its recently awarded 501c3 nonprofit status, any private or corporate support in the form of donations is tax deductible. Volunteers who have other skills beyond getting their hands into the soil will be valued for their assistance coordinating donation schedules and distribution, or working on events and fundraising.
Reiterating what he has posted on the organization’s website, Fitzpatrick said “We are excited to partner with like-minded organizations that are trying to make an impact in getting healthy food to people that need it. And we’d be happy to share data, techniques, strategies and more. Let us know if you want to team up.
“More than ever there is a need for a localized food system,” he added. “ If you are an individual or group that wants to create a chapter of Real Food Share, based on your town’s needs and available resources, please reach out to us to start the executive planning process.”