A Food Revolution Has Arrived to the Lower Merrimack Valley, Seacoast and Beyond

Tuesday July 09, 2024

LOWER MERRIMACK VALLEY – A revolution in providing food security is happening here this summer.

On Rte. 1 in Salisbury in the old ENPRO Services building, Seacoast Regional Food Hub, an umbrella organization that includes Our Neighbors Table and 16 other food banks and service centers, is finishing out a modern building that a medium-sized retail grocery operation would envy.

Trucks loaded with food from the Greater Boston Food Bank roll in to three newly built loading cross docks where they unload into giant refrigerators and freezers, plus rows and rows of shelves for non-perishable goods.

After they leave, vans begin arriving at the same docks to load high quality food. Once loaded, the vans bring the food to volunteer-driven food banks, senior and community centers and schools across the Lower Merrimack Valley from Salisbury to the Greater Lawrence area.

The facility, which was conceived by ONT director Lindsay Haight and her team of board members, donors, staff and customers, who are called guests here, is not cheap. With inflation, the price tag has risen from $2.5 million to construct the 24,000-square-foot building to $7.8 million when it was finished building.

Haight and her devoted team have raised $4.72 million, including $1 million from 100 loyal donors. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, secured $250,000  while state legislators appropriated $400,000 for the facility. Foundations gave another $1.5 million.

The balance is mortgaged at a less than 3 percent rate, but that blessing ends in 2027.

Her goal is to have donors make three-year pledges by September (Labor Day, if possible) for the $3 million plus needed to retire the mortgage — so “we can be debt free,” she said.

That would mean that all monies the food bank raises and all the time her staff of 17 spend on raising money in the future it can be spent feeding the current 32,000 guests and working to keep millions of pounds of wasted food out of landfills.

ONT was launched in 1992 in a pastor’s closet at the Main Street Congregational Church in Amesbury. Its first lunch served eight guests.

When the word spread about the food bank, people lined up. Soon a trip to the church food bank was so popular it took 45 minutes with the guests often standing in the cold with children in tow or seniors waiting at home.

Haight arrived in 2010 as the first paid director. There had been two long-time volunteer directors before. The board, acting on the recommendation of her predecessor, hired Haight to grow the organization.

It took six years, during when ONT saw a 150 percent increase in the number of meals it was distributing to the community. “We were beyond capacity,” Haight said.

Up stepped Amesbury businessman Greg Jardis, who donated a small shopping center at 194 Main St. plus seed money to help get the new 4,800-square-foot Jardis-Taylor center off the ground. It was an estimated donation of about $500,000.

Now closed while it is being renovated, the Jardis-Taylor Center was the first free grocery market on the East Coast. Before being renovated, it was distributing more than 1 million meals per year.

The new food hub at 114 Bridge Rd. in Salisbury is ONT’s second free grocery store. In addition to the retail space, it has 7,000 square feet of storage, including 3,000 square feet of refrigeration.

The building was designed with months of input by 75 guests and volunteers working with the architects. “We wanted to create a genuine grocery store experience,” Haight said. “That’s what we built.”

For her it also “gave the guests a sense of belonging,” she said.

Haight credits Greg Ezell, the program director, for describing the ONT expansion best. He said, “Our building has changed. Our humanity has not.”

Guests shop weekly, parking in a large paved parking lot. There is no more standing for 45 minutes waiting to enter the facility. Entry is accommodated with a membership card, much like Costco and BJ’s customers use.

But as amazing and happy a place the free grocery store is, the warehouse may be the most revolutionary part of Haight’s operations.

With the donated help of SPS New England, thousands of pounds of concrete were poured to create the three truck docks for the delivery trucks.

The Greater Boston Food Bank became a donor to the Seacoast Food Hub so trucks from ONT and 16 other food distribution points would no longer have to drive into Boston weekly.

But GBFB had a bigger vision. It asked ONT and the Seacoast Regional Food Hub to expand its operations from 12 to 17 food providers, adding Haverhill and the Greater Lawrence area, which included Andover, North Andover and Methuen.

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranks the Seacoast Food Providers among the top 12 organizations in the country for its efforts to combat food insecurity and eliminating food waste.

To get involved as a volunteer, donor or guest, visit ourneighborstable.org/foodhub.

Join in a summer stroll on the Salisbury Rail Trail at ONT’s first-ever Trail to Table Walk from 9 a.m. to noon on Sunday, July 21, at 114 Bridge Rd. The new Seacoast Regional Food Hub backs up to the rail trail, “providing the perfect opportunity to create food security one step at a time.”


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