EDITOR'S NOTE: The presentation that formed the basis for this article was given in the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library prior to its temporary closing as a precautionary health measure
CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — For many people having fresh produce is part of their daily diet; a normal part of life. But for some people fresh produce is hard to find and for others it’s so rare they can’t tell a carrot from a turnip.
As part of its programming activities based on the two books chosen for this year’s Two Towns One Book community read, the Friends of the Library’s TTOB Committee invited Sharon DeLorenzo of the fresh food non-profit, Capital Roots, to discuss the history of the organization and its evolution.
Fresh food and the benefits it provides play an important part in both TTOB selections. In Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, the author’s frustration that fast food had become an everyday meal in America moved her to start a community garden on the White House grounds. In Tara Westover’s book, Educated, the author describes her mother having a garden that fed the entire family.
Capital Roots, 594 River St., Troy has come a long way from its origins in 1972 as a service project of Garden Way, the former Troy-based manufacturer of Troy Bilt lawn and garden equipment. Back then the program focused getting residents to use the city’s vacant lots to grow vegetables.
Since evolving three years later into the Capital District Community Gardens program the organization has slowly expanded. As Capital Roots it now oversees 52 community gardens in Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady and southern Saratoga County.
It has also launched the Squash Hunger program to help food pantries, developed the Taste Good Series for young children, established the Veggie Mobile to bring fresh produce to inner city food deserts, created the Healthy Stores Program to put commercial coolers of produce and fruit in inner city convenience stores, and created the virtual Veggie Mobile, an online farmer’s market for wholesale buyers and individuals.
DeLorenzo is a graduate of Syracuse University’s College of Forestry who found her calling when she joined the Capital District Community Gardens program in 1992 as community gardens manager. The name change to Capital Roots came in 2014.
“When I came on there were two of us and we managed 15 community gardens,” she said at the March 8 presentation. In the mid-1990s when Garden Way left town we lost the funding and the equipment that sustained us. I didn’t know if we’d survive.”
DeLorenzo gave high praise to CEO Amy Klein who came on board and kept the organization going with her prior non-profit experience.
“By the early 2000s we took over all Schenectady community gardens and 18 more in Albany; all with a staff of five,” DeLorenzo said. “Today we have 55 gardens in four counties and provide food for 4,000 people.”
The organization’s largest garden plots are found at its Normanskill farm where some plots measure 2,000-square-feet each. The Davenport Housing Complex in Mechanicville has the fewest number of plots with eight.
“Gardens are a wonderful place to bring people together,” DeLorenzo said. “They help reduce crime, create safer neighborhoods, increase property values and help create neighborhood unity all while providing nutritious food, fresh air and physical activity.”
As she moved on from discussing community gardens DeLorenzo turned to the organization’s more inventive programs like Squash Hunger, the children-oriented Taste Good Series, the Healthy Stores Fresh Food Fast program, the Veggie Mobile, and the Urban Grow Center on River Street.
DeLorenzo manages the Squash Hunger: Fresh Food For All program. This volunteer program collects surplus produce from farmers as well as picks over farm fields in the fall with their consent. All the food goes to food pantries. In the first year of operation the program collected 6,200 pounds of produce. By 2019 that number had increased to 90,000 pounds.
“I love our farmers,” DeLorenzo said. “We do gleanings of their fields and pick up farm donations in our cargo van. We’ll donate food to any program that has a feeding program.”
She added that though March is the toughest month for donations, last week the organization had 2,000 pounds donated.
The Taste Good Series goes to elementary school and tries to get small children to try fresh produce.
“It’s a five week program for kindergarten to second graders,” DeLorenzo said. “There are weekly tastings, take home recipes and coupons, and fun and engaging activities where kids learn where food comes from and taste different parts of the plant.”
The organization’s Veggie Mobile is a for-profit produce aisle on wheels. It makes 37 stops year-round, comes once a week, and accepts SNAP and WIC.
“It’s very popular,” she said. “If it’s five minutes late we get calls.”
The Healthy Stores: Fresh Food Fast program puts specially-designed, upright commercial coolers loaded with fresh produce in small businesses, convenience stores, and college campuses. They are stocked twice a week.
“Junk and processed food have had a loud marketing voice in low income urban communities,” DeLorenzo said. “We’re working to put our produce on equal footing.”
At its food hub building on River Street in Troy, Capital Roots’ has green infrastructure with solar panels, two green roofs growing produce, a greywater system that reuses the building’s water, and an on-site produce market.
Expansion plans will put an 18,000-square-foot building on a nearby vacant parcel. The plans call for it to have a commercial kitchen for incubating business and for educational purposes, a café, greenhouses and more.
“Food should not be something people don’t have access too,” DeLorenzo said. “It’s like health care.”