For many years, Santa’s Elves has been working with chefs, local businesses and farmers to feed Rhode Island’s homeless population. The mission started with a woman who wanted to provide meals, toiletries and clothing to Rhode Island homeless and to assist families with children at Christmas.
On an average, the small group of people go out on Friday nights, unfold tables and drop tailgates, to feed over 300 hungry people who wait patiently while good hot food is ladled out with a smile. The group of volunteers starts early in the day on Friday, picking up donated food from generous farmers, and brings it to local resturaunts to have prepared.
Ann Tortolano, co-founder and president of Santa’s Elves, relies on her group of volunteers for ideas on how to raise money for the 501c3 organization. This year a fun project has taken the Elves on a quest to represent Rhode Island farmers.
The idea was spearheaded by Deb Barone of Jamestown, who now works a market table for Pat’s Pastured, a local poultry farmer, after retiring from 31 years of teaching. “I mentioned this idea briefly and within minutes it was in full motion,” stated Deb. With a ton of momentum, the project took a volunteer photographer, a camera, a note pad and Deb racing to farms to capture farmers. They tried to cover a variety of food sources grown and produced in Rhode Island. Deb stated that, “farming has always been important to me. Even when I was teaching I incorporated all types of farming into my curriculum. Teaching science gave me the opportunity to educate children about farming, food and choices that were available to them.”
The project proved to be quite challenging as farmers are very busy and sometimes the photo shoot took place right in the middle of daily chores. “The farmers did not have time to change clothes and weather seemed to always be an issue, causing many retakes,” stated Deb. Laughing, she added, “to think of all the places my boots have been lately, my dog and cat are intrigued with these boots.”
“The mission of the calendar was simple,” stated Anne. “To bring awareness of those providing our food and why it is important to support our local farmers as well as organizations that need community support to carry out their mission. Anne went on to talk about why she loves working with farmers. “Growing up on a farm, I missed the down to earth, practical way of life. Working with farmers, you see that it is dawn to dusk, day in and day out, very hard work with no complaining and their knowledge is amazing, I am in awe of them. They provide a huge need in the community and hopefully people will understand that when they see our farmers in the calendar that they begin to understand their importance and support their efforts by buying local.”
The No Farmers, No Food calendar takes you on a unique tour of Rhode Island farmers right from the cover. A South County farmer who has been plowing corn fields for over 60 years sits proudly on his tractor for the cover photograph. Then the calendar proceeds to tell 12 stories through photographs and biographies of each farm and farmer. The calendar year comes to a emotional conclusion when you flip to see the back cover representing the next generation of Rhode Island Farmers and their restored tractors.
Donnie Reynolds, from Reynolds Barn goat cheese, is featured for December. Donnie is a full time goat farmer with a full time position off the farm as well. “I was asked why I volunteered to do the calendar. The first thing I thought was, what a good cause the money raised would support. Myself plus my wife and kids help out feeding the homeless in Providence on the streets. The very first time I went, I had no idea what I was getting into. It totally amazed me how many people have no place to live and need a hot meal. There are elderly, young men and women and children out there with no place to go. When I greet them and serve them, they all appreciate what we are doing for them and are very polite. As I look into their faces I wonder what brought them to become homeless. I know I cannot fix the world, but if me being in a calendar helps raise money for some people, at least I am making a small difference,” he said.
Bernie Cantwell from Cantwell Egg Farm is the featured egg farmer for the calendar. Bernie refers to his chickens as “the ladies.” When asked what he loves about egg farming, Bernie spoke with some emotion. “It amazes me that a chicken produces a couple hundred eggs a year with just the basics of food, water and shelter.” He referred to eggs as, “a daily gift from the girls.”
The Rhode Island Farm Bureau was a partner in this calendar project from the beginning as Al Bettencourt, Jr, executive director of Rhode Island Farm Bureau, allowed Santa’s Elves to use their slogan “No Farmers, No Food.” “The slogan is a take-off on a similar slogan, ‘No Farms, No Food.’ But Rhode Island Farm Bureau feels ‘what is the good in saving a farm without also saving a farmer?’” stated Al. Regarding the calendar, he added, “feeding people is what farmers do. We feed everyone, rich, poor or homeless.”
The entire cost of printing the No Farmers, No Food calendar has been paid for by advertising from 20 local farms and businesses. The group of photographers, layout design and writing was all volunteer.
“This project was a wonderful adventure. Being outside, getting to meet new people, learning new things and getting dirty to develop a calendar that will raise funds to offer hot meals to people who are in need. This was a project that is full circle from beginning to end and I thank all who have supported this little idea that popped up a farmers market one afternoon,” stated Deb.
This year, the No Farmers, No Food calendar targets male farmers. This was a careful decision by the group, not to exclude the hard-working women farmers of Rhode Island who provide food, but to give them an opportunity next year for a all women farmers calendar. Santa’s Elves has already began to think about what women farmers they will feature next year.
One hundred percent of the proceeds of the sale of the calendar goes to the mission of Santa’s Elves by feeding homeless people in Rhode Island.