Local Food Distribution Moves Beyond The Farmers’ Market

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Vermont has proved fertile ground for food co-ops and farmers’ markets. But advocates for a strong local food economy say it’s not enough to make nutritious local foods available.

They want to get fresh locally grown food to everyone.  

In the kitchen of Brattleboro’s Early Education center, Hans Estrin is putting together food orders.

"Right now I’m working on dividing and sorting out lots of locally produced bagels. These are for a food buying club pickup at early educational services," Estrin said.

The buying club is one of several in the Brattleboro schools. Here, about a dozen families have agreed to purchase local produce and other locally made food every other week at wholesale prices made possible by bulk purchasing.

Here’s a key to how this project succeeds. A driver who delivers to local hospitals, nursing homes and stores also collects food for the buying club from local farms.

Estrin says the pickup service makes it easier for businesses and institutions to purchase food from many small farms – and the buying club benefits, as well. Until recently food purchasers were stuck with the big distributors who control much of the food business.  

Following similar models, Estrin thinks Vermont could produce ten to 20 percent of its own food and not have to rely on trucks to haul it from somewhere else.

"There’d be a lot more full time jobs, money staying in the community, Healthy food being produced." Estrin explained.

Estrin works as food network coordinator for the University of Vermont. UVM helped launch the buying clubs to promote new jobs in agriculture, and make fresh local food more accessible, especially to lower income families.

Hanna Jenkins, the buying club coordinator, checks the boxes for the day’s pickup.

"Today in their boxes they have apples, yogurt, bagels, kale, squash.Now we need to pack up their yogurt, which is from a local yogurt company. Oh you know, and the cabbage." Jenkins said.

Among those picking up orders is Michelle Brainard, a single mom. She says she was raised on processed food.

"Junk food. It’s the way I grew up," Brainard said. 

Brainard’s doctor has told her that she needs to lose weight and adopt healthier eating habits. At 45 she’s already suffering from high blood pressure. She says she’s on the borderline for diabetes.

"My daughter’s overweight, too," Brainard adds.

Brainard is trying to change her eating habits. She says the buying club is more affordable than the co-op. But many of the vegetables are new to her.

She’s already been won over by the kale chips her daughter learned to make at school.

"Kale chips?" Brainard laughs."They are so good."

Advocates say they want to connect young people to the source of their food through initiatives such as the Farm to School program. Katherine Gillespie administers the Windham County program, which is part of a statewide network that gets locally grown food into the schools.

Gillespie says school gardens and field trips to local farms help students connect on a more personal level, to their food and its producers.

"Looking at obesity rates today and the environmental impacts of our global food system, there’s a huge need to make changes with our food system," Gillespie said.

In southeastern Vermont, a larger effort is under way. The farm to school initiative and the buying clubs are part of a Windham County-based umbrella group called Post Oil Solutions.

Post Oil Solutions is in turn, part of a wider fabric of intertwined initiatives working across the state to build Vermont’s local food economy.

Richard Berkman is executive director of the Windham County group.

"Post Oil Solution started about eight years ago, with some community members concerned about rising prices of oil and a future not dependent on oil," Berkman said. 

Berkfield says the group could see that rising fuel prices were linked to rising costs for food.

"And we saw how our food system is really linked to petroleum, and the production of food relies on petroleum."

That’s petroleum used to produce food and to truck it all around the country.

Berkfield says that system has weakened local communities and small farms. "I think over the past 50 years our diets and our food system have evolved to make food very anonymous. We’re really disconnected from it. We want it to be fast, easy and cheap."

Berkfield is far from alone in wanting to change that system. Seven miles up the road, the town of Putney has become a "transition town." That’s an international movement that includes a growing number of Vermont towns that are looking into how to transition to a new era of self sufficiency.

Putney Co-op director Robin O’Brien was a founder of Putney’s Transition Town initiative. She says she first heard about it at a conference.

"We realized that Putney would really love to engage in transitioning into resilience and being ready for climate change and peak oil and economic instability. Really what it’s about is building community so folks can understand who’s who and what’s what and how we can work together best," O’Brien explained.

O’Brien says transition town activities led to the creation of community gardens right outside the co-op and a Sunday farmers’ market.

"And people stop and they’re looking at it and folks are gardening and people chatting. It’s a wonderful addition and the co-op has totally benefited from it," O’Brien said.

Transition Putney also sponsors workshops on forgotten skills: building a chicken coop, growing winter greens.

The latest accomplishment is the launch of a community-supported café called the Gleanery.

Whatever the future holds, O’Brien says, the efforts at building a local food economy, and a stronger community, are already paying off.

We conclude our series tomorrow morning with a report on how "farm to plate" initiatives are good for business, and for society’s well-being.

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