Digging the garden at First Presbyterian Church in Mount Vernon. Courtesy of D.I.G Farm.
The Westchester Local Food Project builds community and a healthy, sustainable, local food system one veggie garden at a time.
“One of the things I realized is that a lot of people are very disconnected from their food and where it comes from,” says Allison Turcan, explaining why she formed the Westchester Local Food Project (WLFP) this past spring.
Turcan aims to change that. The founder of nonprofit D.I.G. Farm in North Salem, she’s spearheading WLFP to develop the food system, support food justice, and combat food insecurity here. Within that, she seeks to build community and create experiences where people gain an understanding and appreciation of the beauty and deliciousness of locally grown food. Established in the area’s agricultural community with D.I.G., whose mission is to reconnect communities to the natural good of the farm, Turcan felt she was well positioned to create a space for people to participate in the local food system.
A variety of initiatives comprise the WLFP: garden education for educators and children; a CSLA (Community Supported Local Agriculture); garden creation and food donation in underserved areas; food salvage and healthy cooking programs; gardening and cooking classes; co-management of the Mount Kisco Farmers Market with WMN Unite; and numerous volunteering opportunities.
Nancy Joyce, a two-year D.I.G. volunteer, derives immense joy from helping create and donate food. “It’s planted me and given me roots,” she says. “I feel like a flower that I’m growing and blossoming because of this.”
Many of WLFP’s initiatives are modeled after programs at D.I.G., where food grown by volunteers using regenerative and permaculture methods is donated, classes are offered, and Turcan hosts popular farmer potlucks. “You see how to grow it, the techniques that we use; you get to partake,” she says (volunteers take home produce). Thanks to Turcan’s networking, WLFP collaborates with local organizations and receives support from corporate sponsorships, donations, and community and corporate volunteers.
Turcan, a longtime barista at Starbucks, took a sabbatical to Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) in France, which changed her perspective on food, our food system, and communities. She started D.I.G. in 2015, on the grounds of the farm owned by Olympic figure skater Dick Button.
WLFP provides seeds and seedlings to schools interested in integrating gardening into their curricula and helps get them started. Educator bootcamp classes are offered at The Growing Academy, situated on the grounds of Mount Kisco’s Ann Manzi Center, because schools often start garden education, says Turcan, but teachers need to know how to incorporate it into the curriculum.
Mount Kisco is the location of WLFP’s first chapter, where it works with childcare centers and elementary schools, including Bedford Hills; seniors from Fox Lane High School also participate. During summer, when school is out, members of Neighbors Link will take over and in turn receive produce grown.
Food produced at D.I.G. and at The Growing Academy, which also holds classes on regenerative and permaculture techniques, are donated to the Mount Kisco Interfaith Food Pantry, Community Center of Northern Westchester, and Neighbors Link, which also receive donations via the CSLA. Different from traditional community-supported agriculture, or CSA, for each share purchased, three are contributed. D.I.G., Deep Roots Farm, and Orchard Hill Organics comprise the CSLA. Some D.I.G. produce is sold at the Mount Kisco Farmer’s Market.
The second chapter is in Mount Vernon, where WLFP gave plants to homeless shelter West Help for its daycare garden and established a garden with church members and local group Roots and Wings at First Presbyterian Church. The church will host a weekly free market, and WLFP will teach waste-free cooking and cook leftover produce for food distribution centers using the church’s kitchen. Any further salvage will be composted.
Growing culturally familiar food is a definite focus. “As we engage the community to participate in these gardens, we’re hoping we’re tapping into cultural knowledge of growing specific foods and varieties,” says Turcan. Then, she wants to teach people how to prepare those foods.
In Mount Kisco, Westchester Local Food Project grows tomatillos, jalapeños, and garlic for salsa verde, and tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, herbs, hot and sweet peppers, lettuces, and onions. The group will plant greens, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, and squash in Mount Vernon and has discussed growing callaloo.
Turcan also works with Grow NYC and Westchester Land Trust to train young farmers, helping get them jobs and experience on nearby farms. The large number of aging farmers is one of the biggest issues facing local food system sustainability, she says. “Food and land access here are huge issues. To have local food, you must have local farmers, and they have to have land.”
Fox Lane High School senior and volunteer Quoya Schnell says growing organic food is meaningful, as it benefits people, their livelihoods, ecosystems, and the environment because of the way food is grown and to foster biodiversity. Doing what we can in our small community to make even the slightest difference is so important, she says. “The mission that [Allison is] carrying out, I’m so excited and happy to be a part of it.”