In June, 2020, the Collaborative began interviewing stakeholders about changes to their operations in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The three completed case studies serve as a record of that extraordinary time, illustrating how local groups were able to adapt and what they learned about what's needed to ensure resiliency in the face of future crises.
Jessica O’Neill is the Executive Director of Just Roots in Greenfield, MA, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to increased “knowledge about and demand for local food in Franklin County.”
The centerpiece of Just Roots is the Greenfield Community Farm, a working farm with a robust CSA program aimed at supplying individuals from diverse economic backgrounds. Just Roots has sliding-scale payment plans that allows members to use SNAP or HIP. Just Roots aims to be an “inclusive change maker,” and sees “a lot of opportunity in including people in the local food economy,” says O’Neill.
Prior to the pandemic, the organization was focused on deepening partnerships within the healthcare system and saw a “real opportunity to marry up the local food system with institutions that already reach the target audience” of the non-profit farm. In order to reach low income residents, Just Roots forged connections with affordable housing complexes and community health centers. Expanding professional collaborations is key to Just Roots growth, says O’Neill. “I like to say Just Roots has done a little by itself but we’ve accomplished a great deal in partnership with others.”
COVID-19 disrupted Just Roots’ operations in a number of ways. As with other food assistance groups, COVID stressed the staff and impacted volunteer efforts. “We haven’t been able to have the large, 100-person, 60-person volunteer groups that would usually come to the farm for three hours or four hours,” says O’Neill. The organization had to pause its community meal program and shifted “from a community meal model to a prepared, delivered model.” They did this through collaboration with Stone Soup Café, which provided a commercial kitchen and culinary expertise. Traditional funding streams, like core fundraising events, were disrupted and Just Roots was forced to rely more heavily on their business sponsors.
When assessing the impact of COVID-19, O’Neill noted that the pandemic increased the organization’s member base with many who were previously unfamiliar with food insecurity. “We’re dealing with people with people who live with food insecurity all the time,” she said, “but now we’ve got people who have never experienced food insecurity who are learning where their resources come from, who are thinking for the first time about how far their food travels because they don’t have access to it because of system supply or source supply issues.” Just Roots grappled with how to best expand their assistance to a new population and increased their communication – through the form of texting, email, and flyers – to build relationships.
Despite the challenges, O’Neill credits the organization’s foundation in agriculture as vital to its adaptation to the moment. Farmers historically adjust to unexpected weather and growing conditions. The organization’s origins “worked to our advantage with COVID because we were able to pivot based on our strength.” Just Roots relies on a CSA model that provides 20 weeks of food. Because it is not an emergency food model, Just Roots did not experience the same hardship as allies in the emergency food realm who suffered from diminished volunteer bases and distribution challenges.
In terms of future funding prioritization, O’Neill highlighted the importance of considering how CSAs can build “a more inclusive food economy where people can leverage their resources to participate on an ongoing basis” that “gets beyond the lingering impacts of COVID.” Just Roots initiated a number of programs to address COVID-impacted populations, adding a COVID-level eligibility for their CSA to get food on the table for those most acutely affected by the economic shutdowns. The organization, which typically focused on a market-style CSA that provided choice to the customer, pivoted to boxed delivery program to reduce risk of viral transmission.
In the long-term, Just Roots hopes to spread their model to communities across MA and beyond. “It is evidence-based and it’s proven to improve health, decrease food insecurity, [and] save society dollars,” says O’Neill. She believes COVID provided a strong lesson that charity alone cannot solve social problems and it is the role of government to embrace this moment to craft good public policy to propel broad systems change. Much needs to be changed to fix disparities in the availability of farm fresh food across the state.
When asked how she feels about returning to normal, O’Neill says “I hope we don’t return to normal. I think success is actually what we’re seeing now; the disruption of the food system and the opening our eyes to real, robust reinvention of how we reinvent the food system to be accessible.” In terms of substantial changes, O’Neill notes that increasing wages is a fundamental part of “opening up the local food economy to more people.”