by Karen Kariuki, Community Initiative Director, Grace Farms Foundation
Long before a vegetable reaches our plate, it has already lived a story. A journey of being picked and harvested, of being grown, deep in the soil, tended to by water, wind, sun, and the care of a farmer, and brought into someone’s home. But before that, it was a seed. Seeds carry stories of history and culture; they signal our roots, and our ancestors, and the hardships and joys that have come before. In other words – they are an object lesson to our humanity, to our connection to one another, and to the hope of tomorrow.
At Grace Farms we see the seed as our commitment to fostering a more equitable, a more just, and a more nourishing world of food sovereignty.
Food has been foundational to Grace Farms since our inception. We built 18-foot long tables to bring people together in our Commons; our community dinners invite diverse individuals and families to gather; and our community garden provides fresh produce for our guests and not-for-profit partners. We recognize that food binds us in commonality, that sharing a meal builds trust and connection, and that it offers an opportunity to see one another with new eyes.
When Grace Farms closed to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic last March, our team instinctively assessed where we could be of service and how we were uniquely positioned to help. The answer, of course, was rooted in our values, our ethos, and our existing areas of expertise.
Within days of closing, we pivoted our resources to address growing food insecurity in our area. Chef Neena and our kitchen staff dedicated themselves to preparing nutritious meals, delivered with the help of 11 Connecticut-based not-for-profit partners, including Staying Put New Canaan, Person2Person in Stamford, and Open Door Shelter in Norwalk. We also increased production in our Community Garden, harvesting and donating 100% of its bounty to our relief efforts, and leveraged our initiative expertise to navigate complicated food supply chains to procure shelf-stable pantry items.
Over the past 365 days, our commitment has not waned. We have been honored to provide more than 200,000 pounds of food to 80,000 families and individuals in need.
When we began our relief work, we knew that our efforts to address food insecurity had to rise from what we already knew to be true and extend from our values. We knew that it would require partnership with trusted not-for-profit organizations. We knew it would require the activation of our place and our people. We knew that it would require us to live out our commitment to equity and sustainability. And we knew that we wanted to honor the humanity of each person, each family, and each organization that we had the privilege of serving.
To us, this means preparing culturally appropriate meals and cooking with high-quality ingredients and fresh produce. We seek to provide more than just a meal. As Grace Farms Foundation Executive Chef Neena Perez has remarked, “There’s a psychological aspect of feeding people. With our partners, we’ve been able to provide human dignity and help alleviate the fear and constant worry of wondering about where their next meal is coming from.”
In her book, Farming While Black, Leah Penniman, Founder of Soul Fire Farm discussed the journey of the humble seed. Centuries ago, she recounts, our grandmother’s grandmothers braided seeds and rice into their hair before boarding transatlantic slave ships, believing against odds in a future of sovereignty on land – so that they could offer both tradition and sustenance to their families.
This act was an act of love and a nod to our connection with food. It is a signal to our roots and to both the simplicity of our food – which begins with a simple seed – and to the complexity of our food system, past and present. It was a courageous act to uphold human dignity.
Food is a critical element to who we are. As cultures. As people. As communities. And yet – despite this essential human right – the pandemic has put a spotlight on just how fragile and inefficient our food system is, particularly for our most marginalized communities. Before the pandemic, one in ten people were suffering from food insecurity. Now, the numbers look more like one in seven. Researchers anticipate that the tail on this trend will be long and will have ripple effects, given the connected nature of food insecurity to other social challenges such as health, education, and housing.
While Grace Farms Foundation is closed to the public for now, our commitment to address food insecurity continues. In fact, in light of the rising need, we have reassessed our commitments, strategy, and areas of expertise and are committed to extending and expanding upon our commitment to food sovereignty and equitable access.
We will advance this work with a focus on three levers:
- Continuing to provide nutritious meals, fresh produce, and pantry staples for vulnerable populations in our local community, in collaboration with our trusted not-for-profit partners.
- Educating and advocating for change through a video series highlighting innovative models in food sovereignty.
- Creating a space for social entrepreneurship that drives new outcomes and exploring scalable opportunities to address underlying challenges within our food systems.
The story of food is centuries old. The future of food is before us. But today, we all have an opportunity to create a more just, a more equitable, a more inclusive, an a more accessible food system. There is still much to do and fertile ground for impact. As consumers, as chefs, as growers, as buyers, as cooks, and as community members, we all have an important role to play. Indeed, we are braided together – seed by seed – and can shape the future of food together.