The Food Net began to resolve food shortages and the nutritional disparities for people on food support. Community ReStart had gardens throughout the city. One associate garden in particular stood out, and became a target for the greed of an old network that controlled the city. It backfired.
The West Side Farm Project was a community garden that raised 200 pounds of produce per week for distribution. It was also an educational program for 23 neighborhood kids, ranging in age from four to twelve years old. The success and notoriety of the program included radio, newspaper and TV coverage. Many people considered it the best thing to happen to the West Side neighborhood in a long time.
The community garden, located on Robbins Avenue, was started by Thom Pecoraro. In 2010 that garden initiative received a total of $15,000, which went primarily to the kids program. There was $3,000 from the City of Pittsfield that was administered by Berkshire Directors Council (BDC), the largest non-profit in the county.[i] We relied on these monies to pay our garden manager for the last months of the season. BDC did not transfer the monies from the city and refused calls and emails for two months.
I was concerned when Becky, the garden manager, alerted me that Dan Bywater, BDC’s Director, wanted to meet with her privately. Becky responded saying she would only meet with the three board members present, which was Thom, a local lawyer and I. When we met, Dan came with Donna Woffer, the City’s program director. They then hit us with something we didn’t suspect, in order to receive the $3,000 we would have to give the garden over to Dan Bywater. We were shocked by this demand and the three board members and the manager refused.
They then tried to justify their taking the garden by accusing us of not having a contract with our garden manager. It helped that our third board member was a lawyer. She showed them all of the contracts and accounting with everything in very good order. Dan and Donna’s frustration built and they left in a huff proclaiming we would not keep the garden.
The following day Donna took away the bench at the garden site donated by the mayor. She next removed the Americorp staff and our computer with our files. Dan Bywater had no gardening interest, had never had a garden. He was a massive 300 pound plus cigar smoker who couldn’t bend down to pick up a piece of paper. Also, he had no staff with garden experience. Yet this City representative demanded he take the garden because it was on city land.
Donna next proclaimed to the community that she had to take the Robbins Street garden away from us. The city took away our lease; Donna announced she was saving the garden program because Thom Pecoraro, the founder and director of the garden, was pilfering money. This was far from the truth, as I know that Thom put over $500 of his own money into the program that year. It was made up slander. He donated countless hours, and never received a penny in return, except the heart felt feeling of supporting his community.
Imagine the message it gave to all grassroots groups in the region. If you develop a great program worthy of funding, the “government controlled behemoth”, BDC, as well as the “good-old-boy network”, orchestrated by the mayor’s lieutenant, will try to take it from you. In addition, they will also trash your reputation in the community for serving community needs. It did not end there.
When it came time to submit a proposal to the United Fund, which is by far the largest funding source for local grassroots organizations in the county, the Food Net submitted one. Despite the loss of one garden, we had four additional community gardens, twenty-one private gardens, nine farms, as well as several produce distributors. We had a network of eleven meal sites, distributing 11,000 pounds that year. We were the main source of fresh produce and we were expanding the learning program to the 90 kids who have summer lunch at the center we ran in a different part of the city. We felt confident in funding.
BDC also submitted a proposal based on no experience with gardening and only having the one garden that they had taken from us. They claimed in their proposal that the two years of sweat equity that we put into the garden program was theirs.
The president of the United Fund pulled the Food Net’s proposal, not allowing it to be considered with the other applicants. BDC became the only applicant for a garden program and received full funding. The city of Pittsfield, under Donna Woffer, provided more funding and when you include the Federal grant that BDC also received, their budget for this little garden program reached nearly $40,000.
The Food Net put three years of sweat equity into this grassroots initiative and was highly successful based on the recipients response. The Food Net was not able to receive funding through conventional means because of these strategies by the “good-old-boy network” and the back door deals of the two major funding groups for the area. This was a big problem.
Yet the Food Net team all believed in the program and saw the good it was doing. The appreciation from participants and recipients filled our hearts. We kept on delivering produce, spreading the word and encouraging local food sustainability and organic production. We kept on joyously doing the weeding and harvesting.
The following spring, when BDC took over the Robbins Street garden program and it became a mere weak shadow of the program that we had originally run. Hardly any money actually made it to the project. The neighborhood mourns its passing. We also had our “Poster Child” from this incident to show the impact of the good-old-boy network.
We were not silent. We had people submit articles to the local newspaper. This, in turn, had people asking questions. Because I work with many churches and synagogues in the area, ministers and rabbis asked what happened to the Robbins garden. I laid out what had occurred.
The ministers were shocked by what they referred to as Mafia-type tactics. The people behind the tactics were empowered. BDC was the largest non-profit organization in Berkshire County and Donna was the director of the city programs. Each had a big say in how our social service expenditures are used. Many of the ministers were activated knowing how much the Food Net has supported the pantries and meal sites. They saw the links supporting the good- old-boy network and how it was crippling our social services.
I did not encourage the ministers’ silence. They talked to members of their faith communities about what happened. The result is that the message got to a number of the Board of Directors of BDC. This and the accumulation of other issues resulted in Dan Bywater being fired. He had been director for fourteen years. Board Members then tried to get financial information and the CFO refused, and he was fired. An audit had shown significant discrepancies in how the funds were actually used versus their intending purpose of serving the public needs. After lawsuits, accusations of millions stolen, the organization shrunk to 40% of its previous size.
Donna Woffer suddenly left her city post and moved out of the area. It was interesting to hear the joy that resulted from her departure. In fact the good-old-boy network is getting more exposure and their vice grip on health and human services is being released. It also allowed more effective management of community programs that BDC once ran, as others are doing it better. This restructuring of the social service landscape was in part due to one little community garden and the power of truth.
During this entire time we just kept on planting, weeding, harvesting, and delivering beautiful organic produce knowing the good it provides. We kept on providing a positive message for local subsistence and supporting local organic farms and distributors. The Food Net received funding from a wide base of community organizations like Project Bread, Civitan and the Rotary Club, several churches and small grants from a variety of sources.
The moral of the story is be positive, feel good about what you are doing. Speak the truth and expose corruption while providing a solution. There are forces that seem to take care of things beyond what we are consciously aware of when we hold a positive attitude and tend our garden.
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[i] Names have been changed in this true story.