Sarah Harpster has kept a lot of food from going into landfills and compost bins during her time as the gleaning and outreach coordinator at The Community Kitchen, a Keene-based food pantry.
Now, she’s taking that effort one step further with a new initiative called Monadnock Harvest Bridge, which aims to support local farmers and restaurant workers while feeding those in need.
The Community Kitchen provides disadvantaged Cheshire County residents with food from its pantry each week and also offers free meals to all community members Sunday through Friday.
While the organization already sources, or “gleans,” much of its produce from area farms, it hopes Monadnock Harvest Bridge will provide additional support to these farmers — some of whom saw their revenue streams dry up due to fewer customers at the Keene farmers market and restaurants that closed or limited their capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 12-week program, which began Wednesday, is supported through a $17,000 grant from a fund at the N.H. Charitable Foundation that supports local food initiatives. It will also draw on proceeds from an ongoing Facebook fundraiser organized by the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition, a consortium of local farms, nonprofits and government agencies that supports regional food systems.
Those funds will be used to purchase locally grown goods, which Machina Kitchen & ArtBar will turn into soups, sauces, side dishes and other items before packaging them for The Community Kitchen’s clients. The Keene restaurant processed more than 100 pounds of squash for Monadnock Harvest Bridge in the program’s first two days, according to co-owner and executive chef Jordan Scott.
The grant will also be used to pay Machina staff members for the work they do as part of Monadnock Harvest Bridge.
“[It’s] an opportunity to continue to pay employees for more hours when we’re still not at the same amount of business that we would have been [without] COVID-19,” Scott said. “This provides us with a chance to make sure they’re still making a living.”
The food prepared by Machina staff will then be available to The Community Kitchen’s clients through its pantry and meal programs, particularly in the colder months. Harpster is focused on providing local food during the winter, especially because New England farms produce only about 10 percent of what the region consumes — largely due to the short growing season.
“All the [food] that gets gleaned is stuff farmers grew with the intent of selling to their market. But you can’t predict how much is going to grow, so you always have to overproduce a little bit,” Harpster said. “Then there’s all this great produce, but it’s for like six months … I’ve always wanted an opportunity to make it into a product that you can use in your cooking in the winter.”
Through Monadnock Harvest Bridge, Harpster hopes to show local farmers, as well as potential farmers, that there is still a market for their goods — even during a global health crisis.
“It’s about keeping that strength in an uncertain season so that the farmers can continue to anticipate they will have a market in future years,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of young farmers start up here and then close their business. It’s the principle of supporting local farmers.”
Green Wagon Farm in Keene has been donating leftover produce to The Community Kitchen for at least a decade, according to its manager, Kaisa Jarrell. But Jarrell, whose family founded the farm in 1994, is particularly excited about Monadnock Harvest Bridge because of the opportunity to collaborate with Machina.
“I love growing stuff, and I also love to cook. So hearing what Sarah and Jordan are working on together has been cool for me to start my own ideas,” Jarrell said. “We’re all going to have our little piece of the puzzle for this project.”
Green Wagon Farm has been financially stable during the pandemic, thanks largely to the fact that its outdoor farm stand attracts customers trying to avoid grocery stores, according to Jarrell. Nonetheless, she praised Harpster for rallying the greater Keene community during a difficult time.
“I think she has done a very good job of responding to the coronavirus,” Jarrell said. “This year, especially, I’ve been so happy with how all of the area businesses have responded and how all of our community has responded.”