Lewiston Farmers & Emergency Food Providers React to COVID-19

New+Roots+farmers+Seynab+Ali%2C+Batula+Ismail%2C+and+Abdi+and+Mohammed+Abukar.+

COURTESY PHOTO/OMAR HASSAN

New Roots farmers Seynab Ali, Batula Ismail, and Abdi and Mohammed Abukar.

Amelia Keleher, Contributing Writer

Nationwide, farmers have been forced to let their crops go to waste because of the sharp reduction in demand following restaurant closures, while others have chosen to give their crops away for free rather than watch them rot. Meanwhile, 95% of food banks across the country are struggling to meet the increase in demand as food insecurity grows alongside rising unemployment. New Roots Cooperative Farm and St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston have both been affected by these changes.

For the past several years, Seynab Ali, Batula Ismail, and Abdi and Mohammed Abukar have provided their community with organically-grown produce from their farm at 954 College St., about 3 miles from Bates College en route to Greene. St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, located in downtown Lewiston, serves the community according to the belief that “everyone deserves access to healthy food, as a fundamental right.” 

Omar Hassan, the Cooperative Marketing and Development Assistant with the Cooperative Development Institute who works with New Roots, and Paul Drowns, the Community Nutrition Educator at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, shared how COVID-19 is affecting local farmers and food insecurity. 

How has New Roots Cooperative Farm been affected by COVID-19?According to Hassan, “the [New Roots] farmers are working right now to prepare for the season while following the [CDC] guidelines.” Usually, New Roots marks the beginning and end of their growing season with a large celebration that includes Somali Bantu food and prayers. Family, friends, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members are all invited. But this spring, Hasan says it looks like it won’t happen. “Hopefully at the end of the season,” he said.

And sales?
Registration for this year’s CSA shares opened at the end of February. So far, only 30 customers have signed up to receive a weekly share of produce, compared to nearly 60 by this time last year. “There are so many levels [to this]; some people don’t have the money, [there’s] a lot of unemployment,” Hassan said. People are looking to cut costs as much as possible right now, which includes opting out of local produce shares, likely in favor of cheaper alternatives. “[We] may have to fundraise to cover that loss,” Hassan added. 

New Roots will continue delivering to their wholesale buyers, which include regional food pantries such as St Mary’s Nutrition Center. St. Mary’s has partnered with New Roots for more than ten years to provide Lewiston’s food insecure residents with fresh, local produce. According to Hassan, “more and more, farmers may have to deliver to food pantries because of growing demand.” Yet the compensation farmers receive from food banks and pantries is “less than wholesale price.”  

Looking ahead… 

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” Hassan said. The New Roots farmers will begin selling at six different markets in mid or late May, though they may need to start early with promotional activities. Hassan urges local residents to sign up for a CSA share to support the farmers if they can. 

How is St. Mary’s Nutrition Center continuing to serve the community?

“The pantry itself is closed to the public,” Drowns said. “So what we’ve done is set up tents outside, in the parking lot, [with] measures to keep people separated. And we’re distributing pre-packaged food.” Staff also “spent about a week or so trying to contact everyone on our pantry list, checking in with people, seeing how they’re doing, what services they might need…”  

Meanwhile, all non-essential programming, which includes cooking, garden, youth and children’s programs, have been canceled until further notice per St. Mary’s website. Even though community gardens qualify as essential, they will remain closed until new sanitation and safety plans have been put in place. 

“The poundage of food going in and out of the pantry has definitely gone up,” according to Drowns. On April 5, L.L. Bean delivered 12,000 lbs of canned and dry goods from Good Shepherd Food Bank. However, these 40 lb boxes “weigh too much… [they’re] too heavy for people to carry [home].” As a result, St. Mary’s “is going to focus more on fruits and vegetables, as well as what we can do as far as dairy and eggs and such.” 

Under these new circumstances, “We’re trying to maintain what used to be normal as much as possible,” Drowns concluded. 

How will the Farmers’ Market be affected? 

Farmers’ markets are considered essential businesses and the Lewiston market will resume in May outside Bates Mill #5, but with new rules that meet CDC guidelines. According to Drowns, some farms are transitioning to an online presence with “very little or zero personal contact” as they seek creative alternatives to safely reach their customers. 

What’s happening with Lots to Gardens

Approximately 140 families rely on the Lots to Gardens program to grow their own food, so St. Mary’s is working to get those up and running as soon as possible. “Right now, the AmeriCorps and FoodCorps reps are working to provide remote programming for projects that people can do at home,” said Drowns. Keenan Shields, a 2018 Bates grad, will be working in the Wood St. Garden this summer, growing produce specifically for the pantry. 

Will there be any virtual cooking classes?

Drowns plans to start a virtual cooking course called Food in the Time of Plague. “It’s just going to be simple things, 20-30 minutes max.” Drowns emphasized that connecting people virtually will be more important than the class itself. 

Resources to support your local farmers & food providers:

Even and especially now, there are many ways for people to support one another, including sharing harvested produce, supporting local farmers, and participating in community land share programs.  

“CSA’s Near Me”: 

https://www.localharvest.org/search.jsp?map=1&lat=44.097004&lon=-70.186775&scale=9&ty=6&zip=04240 

Find Local Farmers’ Markets:

https://www.farmersmarketplaces.com 

Slow Food USA “Mutual Aid Database”: 

https://slowfoodusa.org/slow-food-mutual-aid/