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Grocery store in Chicopee builds rooftop greenhouses to improve food security

A supermarket in Chicopee, Massachusetts that promotes low-cost fresh produce is adding a new component to the business: three greenhouses on the roof of their building.

The owners of Fruit Fair, Samaita and Jared Newell, will grow organic vegetables to sell in the store, which they bought in 2019. The greenhouse construction is supported, in part, by a state farming grant.

Samaita Newell said the 1,200-square-foot greenhouses — which will be visible from the street — are still under construction and should be completed by next summer.

Samaita: We are using a ladder, just a plain hardware store ladder, to get up there at the moment.

Karen Brown, NEPM: When it's up and running, will you have a way for customers to go up there or workers to go up there, or how is that going to work?

Samaita: It's not a farm where you pick your own vegetables and greens. So public access is limited, although we will do guided tours. There will be stairs on the other side of the building. There is also going to be a dumbwaiter so we can — for lack of better words — bring all the merchandise from top to the bottom.

So can you guys tell me a little bit about why you decided to create rooftop greenhouses? How does that augment your business plan?

Jared: It's a low-income area here, and it provides a wider access for fruits and vegetables to the people that are here in Chicopee. There's limited access now. There's only maybe one other farm that does it.

And why was it important to grow your own food instead of going to neighborhood farms, as I presume you have been doing? 

Samaita: Well, the food miles is a big, big thing for us. And during COVID, a lot of the products weren't coming in. There was a big supply chain issue, so it definitely cuts down on supply chain. The products are extremely fresh and will replace all the products that we get from across the country, sometimes across, you know, the ocean with the products that we grow. There is a huge plus to that.

Now, you two are very proficient by now at running a grocery store. Do you also know how to grow vegetables and fruits?

Samaita: We have operated [an] indoor farm — it's in the basement — for about two years now. But it's not a big farm. We have done microgreens. We have grown herbs. We have grown all the starter plants and donated them to Chicopee's Community Gardens this year. But growing it in a commercial scale that's going to be this greenhouse, that's definitely a challenge that we look forward to.

Are there different kinds of permitting or regulations for selling from a rooftop greenhouse that's either different from a farmstand or different from a grocery store?

Jared: The city of Chicopee has been very helpful on clarity for that. I don't believe that there are many differences in regulations between a farm or, say, a rooftop farm.

So this will be considered a farm, that aspect of it, and then you have a separate business, which is the grocery store?

Samaita: Yeah. And then it's just agriculture and it's our right to grow our own food.

An architect's rendering of the future greenhouses on top of Fruit Fair in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
Fruit Fair / Jablonski-DeVries Architects
An architect's rendering of the future greenhouses on top of Fruit Fair in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

So last time I talked to you, it was still within the intense period of the pandemic. How have things been going at the store since then?

Samaita: Things have been going really good. We did a lot of renovations inside the store.

The community here is evolving. A lot of older Polish folks who used to live here for decades and used to be our loyal customers, they are exiting the trade area and there is an influx of Spanish community here in Chicopee. And we are embracing that, and we are trying to evolve ourselves to their taste and the product.

How do you see things going forward for the business and the neighborhood?

Samaita: Chicopee was a food desert up until 2020, and then we were fortunate enough to overturn it into not being a food desert. And we'll try our best to keep it that way, and we'll try to stay in business and we'll try to provide fresh fruits and vegetables.

And I think once the rooftop garden is up and running, a lot of people would benefit from it, especially our impoverished community. A lot of times people tag the word "expensive" with "local," but that's not what we are at all.

It’s Hunger Awareness Week on 88.5 NEPM, exploring stories about hunger in our region to better understand this crisis and what’s being done to combat it. Learn more about hunger in western Massachusetts at nepm.org/hunger.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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