EAST HAMPTON—I met John Malafronte at the Food Pantry Farm on a blustery, gray day at the end of April.
It was overcast and chilly with a dampness that crept into my bones. Malafronte greeted me with such excitement and enthusiasm that I instantly warmed up and was comfortable walking the fields with him. A slight man with an eagerness and willingness to talk, Malafronte (who had a career as a bond salesman in Manhattan), told me that
upon retiring to the East End, he decided to take a small garden at EECO Farm. With no prior experience as a gardener, he grew food for himself and his wife. Eventually he met Peter Garnham, who was farming commercially at EECO Farm. Garnham had been gardening all of his life; his tanned face and rugged manner speaks of the time he has spent outdoors. He is a master gardener and makes a living as a garden writer for national magazines.
In 2009 as the economy slumped, Garnham became aware of the need for food donations at the East End’s food pantries and decided to do something about it. He enlisted Malafronte’s help, and the two friends started growing food to donate. Bringing their contacts, experience and enthusiasm to the cause, calls for help were made to national seed companies and local nurseries, and the donations began to come in. Malafronte and Garnham provided the rented land and “seed” money needed for the farm’s other necessities, and the Food Pantry Farm was born.
The Food Pantry Farm is exactly what it sounds like: a farm that grows fresh organic produce for food pantries. I admit I always thought that food pantries only distributed government-issued and donated meat, cheese and dried and/or canned goods. To me, this sounded uninspired and unappetizing. If indeed that was the case of food pantries in the past, then the face of today’s food pantry is different. Here on the East End, people using the resources of the local food pantries can also expect fresh food, fresh herbs and flowers. The idea being this: people who need to use a food pantry deserve the same fresh, nutritious food that is available to people shopping at the supermarket and farmers markets.
The Food Pantry Farm sensibility is a balance of idealism and practicality. As we discuss what is being grown at the farm (carrots, salad and cooking greens, summer and winter squash, melons, sweet potatoes, okra, beets, turnips, collards, kale, parsnips, radishes and Swiss chard, to name a few), the farmers share some thoughts with me. They grow and donate fresh herbs, such as cilantro, parsley, sage, mint and thyme to the pantries. But they want to know from their clientele: What other herbs and vegetables would you like? They also feel that if you are driven by need to use a food pantry, you are in a rough spot—so they grow fresh flowers to include in the donations. After all, who wouldn’t like a bouquet of flowers to cheer them up? These are very civil, endearing thoughts to be having when providing food for the needy.These farmers discovered that there was a need for good, fresh food, and so they are providing it, and more. They are telling the food pantry clientele that they matter, that someone cares for them.
In 2009, the first year of the farm, Garnham and Malafronte did all the physical labor, along with friends and family volunteers. They planted and weeded and harvested, adding to their land area whenever more became available. Also part of the founding team is Ira Bezoza, a retired attorney and businessperson (and a keen gardener) who came on board to help out. He has a cheery, quick smile and is a great sidekick to Malafronte in their mutual storytelling. Involved in numerous citizen and community groups, Bezoza works as the bookkeeper and chief fund-raiser for the Food Pantry Farm.
Two major donors, and a late-summer benefit barbecue held in September, have raised the funds for a planned state-of-the-art 3,400-square-foot hoop house, a plastic-covered greenhouse. When this hoop house is in place (upon approval from the town board), the Food Pantry Farm will be capable of growing and delivering food year-round.
In summer 2010, Bruce Warr joined the board. Warr has had a passion for farming since childhood. His grandfather was a professor of agriculture and commissioner of agriculture for New Jersey. He visited many farms when he was young, and a lifelong love of the natural world was instilled in him. With a great work ethic, he helps in the day-to-day operations of the farm several days a week. These men put in anywhere from 20 to 70 hours a week.
The Food Pantry Farm currently works almost three acres of land and has two hoop houses. They recently reclaimed an abandoned orchard in a corner of EECO Farm. When I first visited in April, this patch of land was dead looking: brown grass, wiry sick-looking trees. The farmers weren’t even sure what the health of the trees was
or whether they would bear fruit. On a second visit at the end of June, the grass was green and mowed. Much of the area had been covered in black plastic ground-cover cloth to keep down the weeds; large nursery pots had been set on top and planted with cucumbers, melons and zucchini. Vines flowed over the top and onto the ground-cover fabric, ripe with flowers and baby squash. The fruit trees looked healthy and happy, some with fruit on them—a few apples, pears and peaches. The trees will be pruned and fed this winter and spring. Some new trees will be planted to replace the dead ones that will be removed.
So how do four retirement-aged men manage all the physical labor needed to run the farm? Besides them and the volunteers, they have one paid employee, Darcy Hutzenlaub. She is the farm’s field manager and community service supervisor. Hutzenlaub met Garnham when she began volunteering at the Food Pantry Farm. She wanted to learn more about growing food to assist her in a job she had at the time. Eventually, she quit her other job and came to work for the Food Pantry Farm. She recently completed the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener program and this winter will attend the New York Beginning Female Farmer’s Program.
Hutzenlaub is a striking, strong, knowledgeable young woman and rounds out this crowd of retired men just perfectly. In fact the group feels like a family. There is smart conversation, lots of humor and great compassion for each other and the cause. The group bounces around ideas, discusses current farm issues and laughs a lot. They all
share the view that the Food Pantry Farm is a model that could be replicated in communities around the country. Unemployed people could be given work, and those in need could be given their fair share of fresh food. They are all tireless workers with big ideas that I am convinced will come to pass.
Ellen Watson, self-proclaimed naturalist, can often be found photographing gardens, farms and fields on the sublime East End.
At present, food donations are made by the Food Pantry Farm from April through early December. One delivery a week is made to the Amagansett, East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Southampton and Springs food pantries. In 2009, the Food Pantry Farm donated a total of 9½ tons of food from April through early December. In 2010, the number went up to 16½ tons. At the time of this writing, more than 15 tons of food has been delivered from April through September 2011.
The farmers estimate that for every $1 that is donated, they deliver about $3 worth of vegetables at wholesale prices. Donations pay for seeds, supplies, tools and the salary of one paid employee; volunteers and community service people do the rest of the work. For more information or to volunteer, e-mail [email protected]
Amagansett Food Pantry
Saint Michael’s Lutheran Church
486 Montauk Highway
Amagansett, NY 11930
Tuesday 4–6 p.m.
East Hampton Food Pantry
Windmill Village II
219-50 Accabonac Road
East Hampton, NY 11937
Tuesday 2–6 p.m.
Sag Harbor Food Pantry
Old Whalers Church
44 Union Street
Sag Harbor, NY 11963
Tuesday 10:30 a.m.–1 p.m.
Springs Food Pantry
Springs Presbyterian Church
5 Old Stone Highway
East Hampton, NY 11937
Wednesday 4–6 p.m.
Southampton Food Pantry
Human Resources of
168 Hill Street
Southampton, NY 11968
Monday, Wednesday & Friday
10 a.m.–2 p.m.