Like much of New England, the land surrounding Burlington, Massachusetts, located fifteen miles north of Boston, was once dotted with farms. But today, most produce in this relatively affluent community is factory farmed and comes from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
The Presbyterian Church of Burlington has a mission to reconnect consumers of all income levels with God’s nutritious abundance.
The church has a diverse congregation of about 100 members who come from as far as forty miles away. Membership includes people from Africa and Europe, as well as native New Englanders.
“We’re more of a regional church,” says Rev. Trina Portillio, Presbyterian Church of Burlington’s pastor. “That’s partly a function of being Presbyterian in New England.”
The church’s food justice ministry began with helping serve hot meals at The Dwelling Place in Woburn MA, As a Matthew 25 Church, and a Hunger Action Congregation of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Presbyterian Church of Burlington extends its mission reach deep into the community.
“We’ve had food justice ministries pretty much as long as the church has been around,” says Jane McIninch a ruling Elder, and coordinator of the church’s Community Supported Agriculture pickup site, as well as the People Helping People Burlington Food Pantry.
“Our former pastor was part of the group that started an organization in town called People Helping People,” says Jane. “It brought together three ministries, one of which is the food pantry in town.”
“The church was also one of the initial supporters of the Boston Food Justice Young Adult Volunteer Program,” adds Rev. Portillio. The young adult volunteers were challenged to eat only locally sourced food for half the year. For the other half, they lived on a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) budget.
In 2010, Presbyterian Church of Burlington became a pickup site for Farmer Dave’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in Dracut, MA.
In the CSA model, consumers buy a share of a local, usually organic farm’s crops. In exchange for taking on some of the financial risks of farming, families receive a variety of delicious, fresh, nutritious vegetables, usually once a week.
Farmer Dave’s is unusual because it provides vegetables year-round thanks to their extensive greenhouses. Consumers can also purchase a fruit share and even a home-baked goods share. Presbyterian Church of Burlington also hosts a meat share from Lilac Hedge Farm in Jefferson, MA.
Through Farmer Dave’s and other local farms, the Burlington Food Pantry also receives fresh vegetables.“it's a growing emphasis for a lot of pantries,” says Jane McIninch. “There’s been a shift in attitude that it's not just about the quantity of food, it’s also about the quality. As a community, we are starting to be educated about the quality of the nutrients that we take in. We have a goal at the Pantry that thirty percent of the food we give out should be fresh fruits and vegetables.”
“I think it’s important food be locally sourced whenever possible,” says MaryLou Lynn, a Session member and a volunteer at the CSA pickup site. “it's better for the environment, i’s important for communities to have local food available, it tastes better, and it's part of stewardship to be participating in local food efforts.”
Before the pandemic, pickup day was a time of fellowship and education at Presbyterian Church of Burlington. Two volunteers from the church were always there to help out.
“The opportunities for socializing and learning added so much to the experience,” says Jane. “As volunteers, we were always being asked to identify vegetables and help people understand what they can do with them, because a lot of what we get from the farm was unfamiliar to many people.”
While COVID restrictions have necessitated loading the vegetables directly into shareholders’ trunks, everyone hopes to resume normal activities in 2021.
Whatever this year holds in store, there will be plenty of fresh vegetables in the mix.
Eric Diekhans is editor of Earth News, a fiction writer, a video producer for the Greater Chicago Broadcast Ministries, and a member of Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago. His family enjoys fresh vegetables each summer from Angelic Organics CSA in Rockford, IL.