A Community’s Roots Deepen During COVID-19—Thanks to a Farm

While growing up on her family’s small New Hampshire farm, Jessica O’Neill raised pigs, sheep, and turkeys. Her food came mostly from the family garden, where a diverse seasonal harvest included squash, berries, corn, and melons. From a young age, O’Neill said, “I was privileged to understand where my food came from.”

Now, as the executive director of Just Roots, a community farm in Greenfield, O’Neill leads an organization helping area residents get fresh produce grown at Just Roots and other local farms, largely through community supported agriculture (CSA) farm shares.

testimonial from a Just Roots CSA Farm Share participant

How it works: Just Roots CSA members purchase shares of organic produce grown by local farmers. Each week (or monthly during colder weather), members pick up their share of the harvest—fresh food complete with recipes, cooking and storage tips and farm news. People with lower incomes can buy a reduced-price share.

Just Roots CSA farm shares provide food, nutrition, and needed social connection for local residents. Many people residing in the hill towns of Franklin County experience isolation due to lack of transportation, finances, or healthcare. They benefit from the access and affordability of fresh produce offered through Just Roots—and its personal touch.

“This is the social event of my week coming to the CSA and picking up my food,” one participant told O’Neill.

“We saw a huge jump in CSAs this year, especially during COVID,” O’Neill says. “For people who have little money, knowing they’re going to have a certain amount of food every single week and at an affordable price—that’s food security. And that’s huge.”

CSA members can trade volunteer hours during growing or harvest season for a share of food. They can also exchange SNAP or HIP benefits for shares.

O’Neill says that research bears out what she experienced firsthand as a child. “When you have a connection to where your food comes from—and the people growing your food—you’re more invested in what you’re putting in your body and why.”

As COVID-19 took hold in Massachusetts, Just Roots adapted. It began delivering food, prioritizing home-bound vulnerable people.

And, aided by Response Fund support from the Community Foundation, Just Roots morphed its community meals, called “Feastivals,” into “Feastivals on the Go.” Prior to the pandemic, Feastivals were held in affordable housing communities where barriers to food access tended to be highest. During COVID, Just Roots joined with the Stone Soup Café in Greenfield to prepare meals and do-it-yourself (DIY) food kits. The Response Fund grant also covered vouchers for families to spend at the Just Roots farmers market.

O’Neill said, “What was nice was that people could pick up their Feastival meal and DIY kit, go right next door and purchase $10 worth of produce at our farmers market, then go home and make something for themselves.” Through texting apps, Just Roots could check in, gather feedback, and help folks “create community at home.”

Just Roots is committed to more understanding and responding to changing community needs—and breaking down any barriers to food access. O’Neill recounted a story of a CSA participant who, when asked why they had missed their food pickup, revealed their car had broken down.  

“In situations like that, we try and figure out how to help someone continue to participate. It might be that we can send someone to get you or put you on a delivery route. We’re really invested in helping people participate in their local food economy because it’s good for their health and it’s good for local farms…People don’t fall through the cracks at Just Roots.”