by Erica Campbell
Vermont has a blossoming local food movement that is often in the news and even makes national headlines. While it’s wonderful to be recognized as a leader, we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to continually examine the impacts of local food systems on the economy, health, food security and the environment. We need to ask, “Is local food accessible to all, or is it just accessible to some?”
Prior to the proliferation of cheap modes of transportation and industrial farming and processing, all food systems were regionally based, constrained by the limits of the land, climate and local farmers. Vermonters have a long history of self-sufficiency and producing and processing a wide array of food. Over the last century we began to lose that connection to our food and to the land as industrial food from afar became the norm.
There is a revival in local food systems, but it is often perceived as being supported by the more affluent “foodie” types of consumers, often urban. However, that is an incomplete picture of what the local food movement is and what it needs to be about.
Vermont is fortunate to have many organizations working to decrease food insecurity and alleviate hunger, and many of these organizations are seeing the benefits of how local food systems can improve access to healthy food. For example, Salvation Farms coordinates gleaning programs (traditional harvesting and moving surplus) throughout the state to capture fresh food that will not make it to market. The Vermont Foodbank runs several gleaning programs and distributes the produce to many food shelves. They also rescue food from retail markets and run the Community Kitchen Academy, which trains underserved individuals with kitchen skills in a program that uses gleaned food to prepare meals for charitable food sites. NOFA-Vermont’s farm share program provides free CSA shares to qualifying Vermonters and supports farmers’ markets in setting up Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) systems. The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps partners with Central Vermont Medical Center to offer fresh local produce to families in need. These are only a few of the many great programs in our state.
In 2009, the Vermont legislature initiated the Vermont Farm to Plate initiative to increase jobs and economic development in the farm and food sector, and to increase access to healthy local food for all Vermonters. The Farm to Plate Strategic Plan was released in 2011, and that same year the Farm to Plate Network was launched to implement the plan. Members of the Farm to Plate Network encompass all types and scales of agricultural-related production and processing businesses, government entities, educational institutions, distributors, retailers and dozens of nonprofits from food justice to technical assistance providers. Members work together on numerous high-leverage projects.
The Farm to Plate Network has undertaken projects aimed at increasing food access, including the Farm to Plate Food Retailers Task Force working in conjunction with the Healthy Retailers program of the Vermont Department of Health to increase local food at small independent markets. The Farm to Institution Task Force is working to make more local food available where many lower income consumers eat, such as schools and hospitals. Lastly, the Food Cycle Coalition is working to implement the Universal Recycling Bill that prioritizes food rescue.
However, there is still a lot of work to be done. Food insecurity rates continue to be high, national budget cuts have significantly impacted Vermonters and programs intended to serve as emergency food are more regularly used as supplemental food by many families due to increasing needs.
That is why the Food Access Crosscutting Team is exploring how the Farm to Plate Network can better address food access and food insecurity. The group recently met for a day-long planning retreat in Montpelier. The team first assessed the contextual factors affecting the current state of food access. Some systemic factors include a lack of food justice, high poverty rates, lack of livable wages for many people, including farmers, and the fact that food is still not defined as a human right in the United States.
The group then explored what a truly food secure Vermont would look like in the future, particularly focusing on a common agenda we can all work towards. The team also went through an exercise to identify gaps and opportunities that can be addressed by the network and its affiliated organizations—such as messaging and educating policy makers, funders and consumers; linking local food systems to health; and more deeply exploring how local food can be accessible for everyone. There is also interest in building new statewide partnerships and programming to address this challenging issue.
The Farm to Plate Network and its members will continue to meet to identify how Vermont and the Farm to Plate Network can increase food access and ensure that by developing the local food system we are also creating a more healthy society and benefiting the most vulnerable in our state.
Erica Campbell is the Farm to Plate program director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, which developed the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan and coordinates the Farm to Plate Network. Vermont Farm to Plate is a statewide initiative to increase economic development and jobs in Vermont’s farm and food sector and to improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters. www.VTFoodAtlas.com