food for thought

Former federation hunger relief program Rachel’s Table declares independence

The nonprofit split's from the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts was approved last year

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of households in Massachusetts experiencing hunger doubled, to 16.8%; afterward, as COVID crisis funding vanished and food prices rose, a local food justice program in the state is increasing the quantity and quality of available healthy food, especially through gleaning from and growing with the community.

Rachel’s Table has existed as a program of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts since its founding 30 years ago. Now, a year after the federation’s board of trustees approved its spinoff,  it is functioning as an independent, stand-alone organization. The process of transition to becoming a fully independent entity as well as a constituent agency receiving support and partnering with the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts to serve the local community took roughly a year. 

The Western Massachusetts federation serves approximately 35,000 Jewish residents, according to its CEO, Nora Gorenstein, although Rachel’s Table’s programs are available to anyone, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. 

There was “a clear need” for the program to become an independent nonprofit, Gorenstein told eJewishPhilanthropy

“It enables Rachel’s Table to focus on its specific mission, which is related closely to the mission of the Jewish Federation, but is distinct in its focus on food and individuals, not only in our Jewish community, but all individuals in need in our community,” she said.

Jodi Falk, executive director of the newly independent organization, said the organization grew “because we were expanding the ways in which we want to tackle hunger alleviation” in the three Massachusetts counties it serves. The change will enable the organization to deliver an additional 500 pounds of food per week to those who need it, she said. The organization has a new refrigerated van that delivers produce, meat and dairy to food-insecure locals.

Rachel’s Table uses four methods to redistribute food: rescuing, purchasing, gleaning and growing. For three decades, the organization has been rescuing food and delivering it to about 65 agencies (including food banks and other centers). Falk said the organization is on track to rescue 750,000 pounds of food in 2023, which will match the amount rescued during the pandemic.

“For the past 30 years, the primary intention has been to save food that would otherwise have been thrown out from going into the landfill, instead going to feed hungry people in our community,” said Gorenstein. “Within the last five years or so, what emerged was that a lot of the food that was being donated and redistributed was not necessarily the healthiest food,” for instance, baked goods with a limited shelf life, she said, so purchases help to fill the cultural (e.g., turkeys for Thanksgiving) and nutritional (milk, protein) gaps of what the agencies were not receiving as donated food. 

“We glean food from the farms, which is very Jewish, very Leviticus,” Falk said, referring to a commandment in the biblical chapter to leave the corners of the fields and the gleanings for the poor and the strangers. “And we grow food in collaboration with those that are food insecure, [helping them to] plan, plant and harvest their own food,” a program called Growing Gardens.

The gleaning program — now nearly 15 years old — is expanding, said Cara Michelle Silverberg, Rachel’s Table’s director of intercultural learning and land-based programs, toward the goal of harvesting 54,000 pounds of food a year from gleaning alone by 2025. 

While world cultures have had different approaches to gleaning, she said Rachel’s Table’s gleaning method has Jewish roots “that very specifically prescribe how to make sure everyone has access to food.” The fact that crews will be harvesting and delivering food every week provides some reliability for the agencies the organization serves so they can plan their menus for community meals or organize their food pantries accordingly.

Rachel’s Table was born in central Massachusetts in 1992, originally covering the Worcester area. When Rachel’s Table’s Springfield program launched at the Western Massachusetts federation, its leaders based it on the original, but ran it independently of the Worcester-area program.  

Gorenstein said that federation’s annual campaign revenues shift from year to year but that half of allocable dollars go to local agencies, and the other half to Israel and overseas. Last year’s campaign yielded $750,000, which was divided amongst the agencies.

Falk and Silverberg envision a future that expands their work, making space for youth leadership and youth voices, while more specifically discovering Rachel’s Table’s expanded role in providing not just nutrition but bolstering skills and talents.

For example, Silverberg said, participants in Growing Gardens might have experiences and learn skills that enable them to get jobs in food industries or to start their own food businesses or to get involved with local farms or food businesses. 

“People have worked tirelessly to build a food rescue program that is wide-reaching, impactful and important in our community, and that’s amazing,” Silverberg said, adding that in surveying the field as a whole, Rachel’s Table intends to address the root causes of hunger.

Rachel’s Table has two full-time staff, three part-time and various consultants. Approximately 250 people volunteer, about 120 of whom are on the gleaning list. There’s also a teen board of 50, all toward the work of “changing systems to give more access and self-determination,” Silverberg said.

“We’re not just handing them food and not giving them a choice, like ‘here, take what we give you.’ We’re saying, ‘let’s work together and make sure you’re able to choose what you want,’” Falk said.