By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
WARREN, R.I. — Two summers ago, Jan Martin looked on helplessly as nearly 200 people stood in line for three hours waiting for sustenance from an overwhelmed food pantry in Providence. The scene broke her heart.
Martin walked away from that disheartening setting, but not away from the problem that haunts nearly 14 percent of the state’s population, according to a 2010 report (pdf) by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
Today, the “vice president in charge of picking” leads an effort to feed the East Bay’s hungry. The project began last year, and since then has poured thousands of pounds of produce from local fields into area food banks — East Bay Community Action Program (EBCAP), St. Vincent de Paul Society Food Pantry, Good Neighborhood Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry, and TAP-IN.
The experience has opened Martin's eyes. “It’s given me an opportunity to work in a Third World country right in my own community,” she said, with more than a hint of despair.
Much of Martin’s donated food is grown on a field owned by David and Barbara Frerichs, the co-owners of Frerichs Farm on Kinnicut Avenue. David and a few of his farm hands plowed the field and helped Martin’s cache of volunteers plant tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squashes and peppers.
Martin said he wasn’t surprised when the Frerichs enthusiastically embraced her idea, then donated their time, equipment and experience to make it happen. “Farmers have always helped to feed the poor,” she said.
Last year, this longtime local farmer put food on the tables of many. The farm field that has been used over the years to grow vegetables, as a pasture or for hay featured five 280-foot-long rows and produced 5,000 pounds of food. This season, Martin felt motivated to feed more of the East Bay’s population in need. The Frerichs obliged.
This nearly 2-acre farm field now has 20 280-foot-long rows, and Martin hopes to produce three to four times the amount of bounty this year.
“We’re trying to spread around the amount of produce we have,” said Martin, a University of Rhode Island master gardener. To that end, the Washington, D.C., native is working on growing more crops that don’t require refrigeration, Many food pantries don’t have space for refrigeration and, if they do, a hurricane or tropical storm can cut off power and quickly destroy perishable food, she explained.
On a recent Thursday morning, Martin and a handful of volunteers were picking zucchini, eggplant and peppers. Wendy Davis, a volunteer picker and president of the Good Neighborhood Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry in Bristol, left with 95 pounds of food in four cardboard boxes. The produce will help feed the 40-60 people who visit the soup kitchen for breakfast and/or lunch five days a week and another 300 who relay on Good Neighborhood’s food pantry.
Martin’s list of volunteer pickers is about 30 long, and anywhere from three to eight show up on the picking days — Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays starting at 10 a.m.
Besides picking, volunteers are expected to deliver what they gather back to their community. This aspect of the program is the key part to its success, according to Martin. She said it gives those involved a greater awareness of food needs in their communities and neighborhoods.
Barrington resident and volunteer picker Karin Wetherill said this nascent program is a way for people to learn what their communities are capable of growing. She takes the food she picks back to TAP-IN in her hometown.
The 20 280-foot-long rows on a field at Frerichs Farm is expected to produce about 15,000 pounds of vegetables this year for area food pantries.Besides tending to the 20 nearly football field-long rows on Kinnicut Avenue for about seven hours a week, Martin also spends a few more hours each week coordinating the picking of kale, collards, lettuce, cherry tomatoes and winter squash a few miles away at Rockland Farms. The farm’s owner, Ronald Rodrigues, has donated a field for Martin to grow more food to help feed the area’s hungry.
The mother of two adult children and wife to John E. Martin, who works at the Providence VA Medical Center, also spends time weekly farming plots at two different Warren community gardens, growing more food that she donates to neighborhood residents in need. Among those who receive this bounty are the clients of Corliss Institute Inc., which provides social, habilitation and employment services to deaf people with diverse disabilities.
With seven 280-foot-long rows of tomatoes growing at the farm field on Kinnicut Avenue, when they ripen and turn red, Martin said, “it will be all hands on deck” to get this healthy produce picked, weighed and delivered before it goes bad.
“I can’t imagine raising kids on cheap nonperishable foodstuffs,” Martin said.
Thanks to her efforts and those of generous farmers, caring volunteers and the organization We Share Hope, fewer East Bay families now have to.