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Project GROWS Addresses Shifting Food Insecurity

Coutesy of Project GROWS.

Farmers and healthcare providers in the Staunton area are teaming up to provide fresh, locally grown food to those in the community experiencing food insecurity. But the need has changed due to the pandemic, and so has the way they help.  WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports.

[audio from Project GROWS video series: 'Then over here we have our collard greens, and two different kinds of kale growing …' ]

Project GROWS is a public health, educational and food access advocacy nonprofit in Staunton. Normally this time of year, they’d be hosting hundreds of local children on field trips to their full-production farm, visiting schools with loads of vegetables for the kids to sample, and gearing up for farmer’s markets. But amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve retooled almost all of their programs.

NICHOLE BARROWS: So we’re continuing to grow food, but, you know, the way that we’re getting that food to kids and families has changed.

Nichole Barrows is the director of education at Project GROWS.

BARROWS: Access to healthy, fresh foods is needed now more than ever, and many families in our community in Staunton and Augusta are really experiencing food insecurity in a new way.

They’ve shifted their farmers markets to an online format, where they can still accept SNAP benefits, which count double towards their produce. They’re also donating vegetables to the Staunton City Schools food distribution program, releasing an educational online video series, and are one of the farms participating in Augusta Health’s fresh food box initiative.

*Full Disclosure: Augusta Health is a sponsor of programming on WMRA.

KRYSTAL MOYERS: We’re working with a whole collaboration of community partners to help address food access and food insecurity that existed before COVID-19, but is amplified during the current pandemic.

Credit Courtesy of Project GROWS
Megan Marshall, director of food access with spring mix that Project GROWS delivered to Staunton City Schools last week for their meal service delivery.

Krystal Moyers, director of community outreach, has cultivated a network of local farms from which to buy eggs, produce, and meat. Staff at Augusta Health and their partners at Valley Program for Aging Services then distribute the boxes – about $60 worth of food such as chuck roast, eggs, turnips, and spinach, to about 100 food-insecure households in Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County.

MOYERS: In talking with other hospital systems that were several weeks ahead of us in the pandemic, what they were seeing was across the country, one of the needs that rose to the top was food access, specifically for homebound seniors … and that’s actually one of our community health needs assessment needs, too, that we’re working on on a perennial basis.

Case managers with the Valley Program for Aging Services identified 50 of their most food-insecure senior citizens to receive a fresh food box every other week. On alternate weeks, another 50 boxes will go out to Augusta Health patients and other community members. Each box also holds a drawing created by the kids of hospital employees in the on-site daycare program.

MOYERS: We want to just help bring joy to their day.

Moyers said, if it goes well, they may decide to continue the program after the pandemic.

MOYERS: So far, a hundred percent of those that we’ve called have said, yes please, we could so use this, absolutely, you know, thank you so much … to have such a positive response is wonderful. It obviously shows there’s a need.

Cool Breeze Farm in Mt. Sidney is providing pork, beef, and eggs to the initiative. Farmer Andrew Crummett said they didn’t have enough inventory to meet the demand from Augusta Health, so he got other meat farmers he knew to join the project.

ANDREW CRUMMETT: We’re really thankful to all the local farms that are willing to chip in … The kind of work the community’s pulling together is really great to see in a time like this.

Augusta Health also helps sponsor the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Staunton to help buy a few farm shares from Project GROWS. The weekly allotments of produce are then divvied up between 15 to 20 congregants in need. Michael Turner is their senior pastor.

MICHAEL TURNER: It’s a great way to improve the overall health of our congregation.

The church has partnered with Project GROWS and Augusta Health for three years now to get fresh produce in the hands of homebound seniors and families struggling to make ends meet. Last year, they won an award from the national organization The Balm in Gilead’s Healthy Churches initiative. And services like these are even more important in a time when the elderly are at risk of contracting a potentially fatal virus, and many working parents are laid off.

TURNER: They’re reaching out to meet the needs of our community. Hunger is a major problem, still, in our community. So it’s a wonderful thing when we can meet that need.

Nichole Barrows says that a strong network of relationships is what has allowed Project GROWS to mount their pandemic response so quickly.

BARROWS: We have really strong community partnerships with all these organizations, like Augusta Health and the schools. So it’s been really humbling in the past couple of weeks to figure out what our response is as a public health organization and as a full production farm … I feel like we’ve noticed the real importance of leaning on each other and collaboration during this crisis.