Growing Food for the Hungry


Writing in his journal in the spring of 1852, Henry David Thoreau made an observation that Joe Rigali ’70 would surely second. “The farmer,” Thoreau wrote, “increases the extent of habitable earth. He makes soil. That is an honorable occupation.” Through Gaining Ground, a nonprofit in Thoreau’s hometown of Concord that grows farm-fresh organic produce for hunger relief in eastern Massachusetts, Joe has found a way to make that occupation even more honorable.

Begun in 1991 as a small garden in a local woman’s front yard, Gaining Ground now manages three and a half acres of farmland at three sites that provide produce and maple syrup to 13 food organizations from Boston to Lowell. The group is supported by grants and private contributions, with an annual budget of $350,000. As its volunteer board president since 2011 (and acting executive director until this year), Joe has helped the organization reach new levels of productivity and community engagement. “Six years ago, we grew about 25,000 pounds of food and we had maybe 1,500 volunteers,” he notes. “This year we’re going to hit 70,000 pounds on the same land, with close to 3,000 volunteers.” The group estimates that some 650 people receive its produce each week.

Joe’s involvement in Gaining Ground dates back to 2006; his wife, Tracy Winn, was on the board of directors, and he volunteered to lend a hand with various carpentry projects around the farm. The group’s mission soon drew him in. “I really like the idea that there’s a role for an organization that can, as I say, bring Whole Foods to the food pantry,” says Joe, a lawyer who is now retired from his career in financial consulting. “We’re not just delivering food, we’re delivering a statement to people who use the food pantries that they too can have the best produce available.”

As it happens, agriculture was in Joe’s blood. He grew up in Holyoke, in an Italian immigrant family of avid gardeners that raised animals and tended grape vines. His parents saw in their son a student who needed the structure a school like Williston could provide. “I was a local kid who was getting into some difficulties, as young men do. My parents were smart enough to know there were other avenues that could be taken in life. Williston was a major cost. But I boarded there, and now suddenly there was a new world, with new intellectual rigor and aspirations, and that led to my going to Wesleyan University, and from there having the intellectual confidence to do many different things.”

And his aspirations have a new outlet at Gaining Ground. Under Joe’s leadership, the group has dug a new well for irrigation, built hoop houses to extend the growing season, and put up deer fencing to cut losses. In May of 2016, needing a new barn, the group opted to try a community barn raising, which Joe notes was “an insane thing to do, but a perfect fit for us.” After a hired builder cut all the timbers, “we had 220 volunteers, and raised the barn frame in a day. I’m not sure that happens in a lot of other places.”

Experiencing that sense of community has been particularly rewarding for Joe. “Whether it’s the board of directors, or the people building the barn, or all the other volunteers, one of the attractions is getting people behind a great common cause, and people working together,” he says. “If you have the right mission and the right cause, in this fractious world we live in, that’s one way to get people behind a common purpose.”

The next question for Gaining Ground is whether its compelling mission has appeal beyond Concord. Could other communities use it as a model to address hunger issues? “That’s one of the things we are looking at for our next phase of growth,” Joe says. “It could be a useful way in a lot of communities to bring disparate groups together.” Concord is an unusual community, Joe acknowledges, both for its affluence as well as for its long tradition of independent thinkers. But he still thinks the Gaining Ground concept has the potential to be replicated. Already a number of other communities have reached out to him at Gaining Ground’s main office in Concord.

It just happens to be in the very farmhouse where, 200 years ago, Henry David Thoreau was born.

Name: Joe Rigali ’70
Home: Concord, MA
Work: Board president of Gaining Ground, a nonprofit that grows organic vegetables for hunger relief in eastern Massachusetts