Food For Free in Cambridge Provides Farm-to-Table Produce for Boston-Based Homeless Shelter Pine Street Inn

As winter approaches, one Cambridge nonprofit has taken advantage of this year’s growing season to help combat hunger and homelessness.

This year, Food For Free dedicated all the vegetables it grew on a quarter acre of farmland in Lincoln, Massachusetts, to just one of the 125 groups it partners with in Greater Boston: Pine Street Inn. To ensure this Boston-based homeless support nonprofit provides at least 6 ounces of vegetables to its guests each day, Executive Chef Frank van Overbeeke said he needs more than 300 pounds of produce.

Van Overbeeke said this free farm-to-table support from Food For Free supplements Pine Street Inn’s ongoing effort to provide more nutritious meals to the people it serves.

“We are concentrating on providing them good things that are healthy,” he said.

Pine Street Inn serves about 2,000 meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner—each day, Van Overbeeke said. Before this initiative sprouted some six months ago, he said the kitchen fed people without much attention to the nourishment it provided.

“As we started to think more about it,” he said, “we’re probably not doing our guests the best thing we can do by feeding them so many carbohydrates.”

But nutritious food can be expensive, said Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food For Free. Purpura said her group, which rescues unspoiled food that supermarkets, wholesalers and collegiate dining halls can’t sell, has provided for Pine Street Inn for five years.

“Because they had a limited food budget, they were doing the best they could with their dollars, just like these families,” Purpura said.

The two groups agreed earlier this year that increasing nutrition is imperative to treating hunger, Purpura said. Recognizing their half-decade-long partnership, she asked if there was anything more Food For Free could do to help.

That’s when van Overbeeke told her about the health initiative, he said.

Budgetary restrictions often limit Pine Street Inn to frozen vegetables rather than fresh produce, van Overbeeke said. He said the people he serves appreciate the variety of flavors that he’s been able to produce since Food For Free began delivering hundreds of pounds of crops to his kitchen weekly.

Van Overbeeke said the variety of vegetables, including raw carrots, beets, cabbage and more, have also enriched Pine Street Inn’s catering and training program: a workforce development project to teach kitchen skills to those who may not have the opportunity to learn them.

But all this change hasn’t gone unresisted, van Overbeeke said.

He said food that lacks in nutrition is often more tasty, and his patrons have noticed. Pine Street Inn prefers to serve whole grain bread instead of white bread, for example—a trend that some guests worry may lead to eliminating sugar altogether, van Overbeeke added.

“I want to concentrate on good healthy grains and vegetables,” he said, “but I’m not going to tell them they can’t have candy.”

The intention in all of this is to create a healthier community, van Overbeeke said. Many of his clients are homeless because of medical debt spurred by conditions he said may have stemmed from or been intensified by poor eating habits.

“It’s been nice to work directly with Pine Street Inn because [food is] going to a place where it is needed,” Purpura said.



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