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Sharing The Bounty: Groups Work To Make Local Food More Accessible, Affordable

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Susan Keese
/
VPR
An Equitable Buying Club at the Brattleboro Area Middle School distributes food from more than a dozen producers and farms, all within a 30-mile radius.

Vermont is a national leader in promoting small farms and locally produced food. But local food initiatives aren’t reaching everyone. A report by the Vermont Community Foundation says 13 percent of families in the state struggle with hunger or food hardship.

In the Brattleboro area, Equitable Buying Clubs are part of the effort to make local food more accessible to all Vermonters.

Twice a month, participants in the club at the Brattleboro Area Middle School pick up their food orders in the cafeteria. Tables are heaped with food from local farms and producers: beets, greens and yogurt, all at wholesale prices.

Parents and school staff wander the rows, picking up food items they’ve ordered in advance from an online form. A member of the buying club's staff checks the items off: “One cauliflower, one bag of parsnips, one sweet potato, garlic broccoli, two of the cinnamon raisin bread…”

A report by the Vermont Community Foundation says 13 percent of families in the state struggle with hunger or food hardship.

The food comes from more than a dozen producers and farms, all within a 30-mile radius.

The middle school club is one of four food-buying clubs in Windham County schools. They’re sponsored by a group called Food Connects.

Katherine Gillespie manages the group’s farm-to-school programs. The food is collected and aggregated by another organization that works closely with Food Connects.

“We have a truck that picks up at the farms,” Gillespie explains. “Early in the morning there’s a pickup and then it’s dropped off within the same day." Food Connects is able to keep costs down this way, Gillespie explains: "There’s no overnight storage facilities or any of the overhead that would go along with that more structured storage component.”

Deliveries also go to nursing homes, area hospitals and other institutions.

Gillespie’s group has made big strides in getting local produce into cafeterias and lesson plans, but she says the retail cost of local food still presents a challenge. 

"We’ve been really struggling to figure out a great link for families and school staff to really engage with local food,” she says. “Many can’t afford local food at the retail price.”

The Food Connects buying clubs are one of two successful projects funded by the Vermont Community Foundation’s farm and food initiative. The Newport-based Green Mountain Farm-to-School Network also received a grant for its Harvest of the Month program.

Janet McLaughlin oversees the foundation’s farm and food initiative.

"We chose those programs because they were good models for getting healthy local foods to all sorts of Vermont families ... in ways that were comfortable and that were really inclusive." - Janet McLaughlin, Vermont Community Foundation

“We chose those programs because they were good models for getting healthy local foods to all sorts of Vermont families," McLaughlin says. "Especially those at lower income levels, in ways that were comfortable and that were really inclusive.”

The foundation hopes the grants will encourage local food advocates around the state to share ideas and resources.

The Brattleboro buying clubs have already adopted the Harvest of the Month idea. They’re using taste tests and informational materials developed by the Newport group to teach shoppers about foods that may be new to some.

November’s harvest of the month vegetable is kale. At a table in the middle school cafeteria, Kira Sawyer-Hartigan demonstrates how to make a kale salad.

“It’s really great,” she says while massaging the crinkly green leaves with her fingers. “You just take some salt and lemon juice and you massage literally for about it for five minutes then you drizzle some oil.”

Two school employees watch while munching  kale chips from a bowl on the table.

“That’s delicious,” one of the two workers says.

They grab some recipes -- and a few more kale chips -- and head home, ready to try something new.