Hunger Relief from the Ground Up: Secret is in the Soil

At the end of March, Gaining Ground hosted an interdisciplinary panel focused on the issue of hunger relief. In a community like ours, hunger might not be obvious, but here are the numbers:

  • 41 million Americans are hungry, and yet 40% of food in the US is thrown away during the growing, distribution, and dining process.
  • Children struggle with hunger with 1 in 8 children in Eastern MA being food insecure and 1 in 6, nationally.
  • 800,000 Massachusetts residents do not know where their next meal will come from, an increase of 71% in the last decade.

Our panel included:

  • Danielle Nierenberg, activist, author, and journalist. She co-founded Food Tank, a non-profit organization that researches food systems, hunger, and poverty.
  • Dr. Kathryn Brodowski, preventive medicine physician who specializes in food insecurity and nutrition. She oversees both program and research at The Greater Boston Food Bank.
  • Doug Wolcik, farm manager at Gaining Ground.  Doug has focused on soil health and introduced no-till agricultural practices to Gaining Ground, a switch that has vastly increased the amount of food donated to hunger relief efforts.

We had a full crowd join us for an evening of discussion about food security, human health and one of the most surprising levers for positive change: the soil beneath our feet.

Doug Wolcik, farm manager at Gaining Ground in Concord, told an audience of close to 100 people gathered at The Fenn School in March that when a group of local farmers came to check out Gaining Ground, they had one question—“It’s August. Where are the weeds?”

Gaining Ground, an organic nonprofit farm that is rolling out cutting-edge sustainability techniques, doesn’t have many weeds, even at the peak of the growing season. Pests and disease are likewise scarce. And another plus—the farm doesn’t need much watering.

It’s partly because Gaining Ground, says Doug, focuses on the soil, not the plant. Conventional farming, he explained, takes aim at the plant, primarily providing it with three basic nutrients for growth. But Gaining Ground focuses on the soil, balancing 15 nutrients and nurturing the living biology that produces rich, healthy moisture-retentive soil. After the vegetables are harvested, the next crop goes right in.

“The day the carrots come out, the lettuce goes in,” said Doug.

The result? The soil at this small Concord farm, adjacent to the house in which Henry David Thoreau was born, is impressively productive. Its yield per acre has more than doubled in the last five years to 80,000 pounds per year. Gaining Ground is fortunate to have more than 2,500 volunteers annually who learn about hunger relief and farming techniques while working with the farmers.

Wolcik was one of three panelists who came together to talk about the connections between soil vitality, healthy food and hunger at an event organized by Gaining Ground called Hunger Relief from the Ground Up. Gaining Ground board member and systems educator Linda Booth Sweeney moderated.

“Eight-hundred and fifteen million people in this world go to bed hungry every night,” said panelist Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, an organization spotlighting and supporting sustainable ways of alleviating hunger. Danielle has personally traveled to dozens of countries from sub-Saharan Africa to South America to parts of Asia to visit small farms and talk to farmers.

“We in the United States think we have a lot to teach the world,” she said. “But what I’ve found is that when it comes to farming, we have much to learn from the global community. There are 500 million family farms in existence today, and these farms provide 57 percent of the world’s food production.”

A critic of today’s large-scale industrial farming, Danielle tends to emphasize the positive. “Stories of success and hope” are her organization’s trademark. But Danielle believes agriculture is at a critical moment, balanced between the need to feed the world’s growing population and the damaging effects on the environment of conventional farming methods.

The answer for her lies in policy change at the highest levels of government, but she sees that change as resulting from efforts in places like Concord. Audience member Pamela Goar, a former president of Gaining Ground’s board, said many of the students at Concord-Carlisle High School are interested in environmental sciences.

“At the high school, everything is recycled,” she said. “They even wash the plates.”

Panelist Dr. Kathryn Brodowski, who described herself as “a doctor and a farmer,” shared why a physician like herself would be on the staff at The Greater Boston Food Bank. There’s a new recognition of the connections between good food, especially fresh food, and the long-term health of people who depend on food assistance.

“Whether it’s dental health or mental health, access to good, fresh produce makes a difference,” she said.

Kathryn cited new connections between The Greater Boston Food Bank and institutions like Boston Medical Center and the community health centers throughout the region.

“We are encouraging them to test patients for food insecurity, and directing them to available resources,” she said.

One audience member asked about the scale problem with small farms like Gaining Ground. A labor-intensive operation with volunteers helping to raise its crops, can a small farm like Gaining Ground ever be scaled up to meet the world’s food needs?

Doug suggested thinking of the question in different terms. To feed our communities, he asked, “Do we want one 100-acre farm or 100 one-acre farms?”

Audience member Kannan Thiruvengadam, director of a farm in East Boston called Eastie Farm, could answer that one. Three years ago, a small group of local people got permission from the city to farm a vacant lot in their community. Today, the farm that rose out of that unloved space helps to feed the local populace, bringing together community volunteers to help, and giving much of what it grows to the East Boston Soup Kitchen.

“Doug Wolcik has achieved soil health at Gaining Ground, and as an urban farmer, I am inspired by that, and hope to learn from him in the coming seasons. I also appreciate Danielle Nierenberg’s comments identifying deeper social ills, of which the shocking prevalence of hunger in the United States is a consequence. We all need to fight these ills—from the ground up.”

Like Gaining Ground, which gives all of its produce to food banks and food pantries with the help of its volunteers, Eastie Farm represents one of those stories of hope and success that Danielle Nierenberg believes will change the world.