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Connecting Through Local Food This Thanksgiving

Posted by: Stuart Comstock-Gay on 11/25/2014

Janet McLaughlin directs the Food and Farm Initiative, our five-year effort to connect all Vermonters with healthy, local food. In the following guest blog, she shares her perspective on the depth of Vermonters’ connections with each other.  – Stu

My husband and I welcomed our second child in August—another handsome, healthy boy who we’re looking forward to raising as a Vermonter. Just seven weeks after Ian’s arrival, I fell down our stairs and broke my leg. And while I definitely cannot recommend caring for an infant and toddler while on crutches, the experience has provided an amazing window into the generosity of our Vermont community. Family and friends dropped what they were doing to care for us. Neighbors helped with babysitting and baby holding. And everyone, including my colleagues here at the Community Foundation, has helped us with a steady supply of healthy, hearty meals for weeks now.  

Our experience confirmed what we know about this state: Vermonters care about each other, and they care about food. Research shows that Vermonters’ identify their greatest value as the state’s working landscape and its heritage. Demand for local food is at an all-time high. Just consider farmers markets: there are more markets per capita here than anywhere else in the country. But I’m also moved by another set of statistics that reflects Vermont: One in four Vermonters turned to food shelves and meal programs to feed themselves and their families during the past twelve months. 

In my role at the Community Foundation, I spend my time trying to address this question: how do we ensure that all Vermonters benefit from our local food system? What is clear is that there is no silver bullet. Our food system is complex, just as fighting poverty is complex. But there is hope. Many Vermont organizations are leading promising work at the intersection of hunger and local food.

We’re growing the collaborative work of many of them through our Food and Farm Initiative: our five-year effort to connect those working in support of our local food system with those working to ensure all Vermonters get the healthy food they need. We launched the initiative with grants for farm-to-school programs that incorporate local food in cafeterias, classrooms, and communities. Because schools reach so many food-insecure Vermont children, they were the most logical place to start. While there are no easy solutions, the programs are reporting meaningful progress.

Take Green Mountain Farm-to-School’s Harvest of the Month program, for example. It’s a statewide campaign that promotes a different Vermont-grown crop each month and provides ready-to-use materials for classrooms, cafeterias, and communities. Three hundred partners have now joined, including 50% of schools in Vermont, and nearly 60% of those renewing for a second year elected to make a financial contribution to the program.

As part of another grant-funded program, Food Connects and its partners engaged parents in the Brattleboro, Newport, and Rutland areas this year through 14 focus groups, 65 cooking demos and tastings, and 10 innovative, school-based local food buying clubs. Results of the focus groups are being shared across the state and nearly 80% of buying club members surveyed said they are purchasing more local food as a result.

And we’ve funded the Center for an Agricultural Economy’s (CAE) effort to get more lightly-processed Vermont veggies into schools. In the video below, Sarah and Annie at the CAE discuss the long journey of veggies from a Vermont farm to a cafeteria tray.

With a little more than a year under their belts, the Center for an Agricultural Economy is moving thousands of pounds of lightly-processed local vegetables into Vermont schools each month. When schools offer high-quality foods, students widen their taste preferences and school meal participation grows. That allows schools to harness economies of scale in purchasing more local food. It’s a virtuous cycle of delicious, nutritious, and sustainable local food growing, purchasing, and eating. Now that’s what we call systems change!

It’s a great example of the Food and Farm Initiative helping to build lasting partnerships and equitable solutions in Vermont’s complex food system. And a true manifestation of Vermonters’ care for food—and for one another.

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