GRAFTON, Mass. - U.S. Rep. James McGovern doesn't get the chance to get his hands dirty -- really dirty -- in his day-to-day life.
But the Worcester Democrat welcomed the chance to stick his hands in the soil Friday morning at the Community Harvest Project in Grafton, an all-volunteer farm devoted to raising fresh produce for the Worcester County Food Bank.
"To me, this is what a community is all about," McGovern said. "There are tens of millions of people going hungry here, in one of the richest countries in the world. It's something to be ashamed of."
Volunteers from all around the country visit the Community Harvest Project during the growing season to take part in its mission to feed the hungry. At the peak of harvest, the Worcester County Food Bank picks up several tons of vegetables three to four days a week.
"It can be on someone's plate in a matter of hours," said Ken Crater, president of the Community Harvest Project's board of directors. "Right from the field to someone's home."
On this particular day, a group from Doherty High School in Worcester was working in the fields, planting squash and tomatoes. For most of the students, it was their first time on a working farm and a group of girls shrieked as they encounted a spider.
Not to be outdone by high school students, McGovern dug a couple of holes himself for tomato plants, although his actual planting techinque was criticized by the farm's quality control for not tamping the dirt down firmly enough. McGovern, with a grin, held up his dirty hands.
Farm Manager Ken Dion said the majority of the farm's volunteers visit only once a year and, like McGovern, lack a farming background. Quality measures are in place to ensure that even the most haphazard volunteer does not damage the plants in their efforts.
The farm consists of 8.5 acres at the main farm, plus an additional five acres across the street at the White farm and an orchard in Brimfield. Last year, 180,000 lbs. of produce was harvested.
Only the best quality produce actually makes it to the Worcester County Food Bank. Vegetables that don't make the cut are brought to the farm's commercial-quality kitchen, where they are cut, blanched and frozen for use in shelters around Worcester.
"Nothing goes to waste," Dion said.
McGovern said one of his biggest focuses has been on hunger.
"One of my biggest regrets in the debate on health care is that there hasn't been more of a focus on nutrition," McGovern said. "Food is medicine. Healthy food leads to healthy people."
Healthy eating habits established early in life will lead to a healthier population, McGovern said. Partnerships like the one between the Community Harvest Project and the Worcester County Food Bank mean that poorer families have access to food that doesn't come out of a can.
"This is unbelievably inspirational to me," he said.
The Community Harvest Project is located at the Brigham Hill Community Farm, 37 Wheeler Road, Grafton. For information on how to volunteer at the Community Harvest Project, email firstname.lastname@example.org.