BRATTLEBORO—Though Vermont has made strides toward rebuilding a local food system through statewide efforts, at the ground level, accessing local food still challenges many families with impossibly tight budgets.
Filling that gap is the Windham County Local Food Buying Club which offers a wide variety of food items, including vegetables, bagels, yogurt, eggs, and cheese. The club sources food from farms and producers within a 30-mile radius of Brattleboro.
The buying club grew out of the Windham County Farm to School program, a project of Post Oil Solutions.
The Farm to School program operates to connect farms and school cafeterias, said Katherine Gillespie, program manager for the Windham County Farm to School program. The local buying club piggybacks on this connection. The clubs establish the next step in a thriving local food system by connecting farms to families.
Price tags on local food often run higher than conventional foods. Families working multiple jobs might not have the time or support to prepare meals.
Or, sometimes, the economic choice between microwaved and fresh meals boils down the cost of turning on the oven, said Gillespie.
A buying club helps participants get the best price by purchasing directly from producers.
Overall programs like the Farm to School program or Local Food Buying Club address the need for profound change in lifestyle and the required time, energy, and financial risks: risks like children not liking unfamiliar foods, or the commitment to learn new methods of cooking.
“The local food movement is asking for large-scale behavioral change, for everyone,” said Gillespie.That change comes more easily, and those potential risks can be overcome, when people have support behind them — in part from support networks like the Farm to School program, said Gillespie.
The Local Food buying club operates with a small delivery fee and stages the pick up in a neighborhood school.
The Vermont Community Foundation invited the Farm to School program, a project of Post Oil Solutions, to apply for a grant last June. The program, one of five in the state to receive funding, was awarded $35,000 to expand local food, school-based, buying clubs in Windham County.
Gillespie and Richard Berkfield, executive director of Post Oil Solutions, plan to establish a model for other organizations to implement in schools statewide, said Gillespie.
Feelings of shame
Gillespie and Berkfield said the buying clubs represent relationships years in the making.
These buying clubs couldn’t have happened two years ago, said Berkfield: the infrastructure to move food and consumer demand for a diversity of local products had to sprout in stages.
This supply and demand was also coupled with education in schools; as a result, students and their families now feel more comfortable and want new foods, increasing the demand for local products.
According to Berkfield, Post Oil Solutions incorporated into the buying club program some lessons learned from its summer Elliot Street Market, a farmers’ market open to lower-income households: namely, it has to go beyond the food itself.
“Farm to School seems warm and fuzzy to most people,” said Berkfield.
But the program — along with accessing, cooking, and eating local foods — can trigger feelings of shame for people without the necessary finances or skills.
Gillespie plans to continue holding taste tests and cooking demonstrations that she runs through the Farm to School program to help rebuild skills often lost through the processed-foods-based system that many Vermonters live in now.
Society’s expectations have changed too, she adds. For example, people today expect to prepare meals in a shorter amount of time than families previously spent.
Expanding the club
Most of the $35,000 VCF grant will support hiring a part-time program coordinator, said Gillespie.
Post Oil Solutions has hired Hanna Jenkins, who also served as the Elliot Street Market manager over the summer.
According to Gillespie, the school-based buying club started with three pilot sites: Early Education Services, Green Street School, and Oak Grove School. The pilot has run for three months and serves about 41 families.
Going forward, the buying club will expand to two more sites, at Brattleboro Area Middle School and Guilford Central School, and expand its membership.
People who qualify for state programs like 3SquaresVT, Vermont’s food stamp program, or state health-care programs like Catamount, might also qualify for the buying club.
Families can use their EBT cards at the buying club, said Berkfield.
With the grant and program’s expansion, said Gillespie, the club will also open 50 percent of its membership to people with middle incomes.
Middle-income participants will be required to pay a 20-percent fee, said Berkfield.
Post Oil Solutions will also offer a $5-match incentive vegetable program at the buying club, he said. If you buy $10 worth of vegetables, the club will subsidize half of the cost.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to making it work [for people],” said Berkfield.
Putting food on the table can cause stress for people living on low incomes, said Gillespie. Having to consider quality and sourcing local food on top of everyday concerns adds another stressful layer.
“We want to make it [preparing local food] an easy option,” said Gillespie.
To Gillespie, the buying club is an exciting program that grew out of the community’s needs.
“It’s an innovative model that’s trying to address major barriers of affordability and convenience,” she said.
Programs like the buying club, in Berkfield’s opinion, take a community effort of farmers, community organizations, volunteers, schools, and foundations.
Berkfield wanted to emphasize that Farm to School, and by extension the buying club, would not have succeeded without the support of schools’ administration, students, and their parents.
The buying club is looking for volunteers, said Berkfield. The program needs a dedicated home delivery volunteer and people to help sort orders at the Windham Regional Career Center.
The time commitment, according to Berkfield, is two hours every other week from noon to 2 p.m. Volunteers can purchase surplus food items or order ahead.
Post Oil Solutions is also accepting donations of quality kitchen tools, like knives or measuring cups.
For more information, or to sign up for the buying club, contact Hanna Jenkins at 802-258-8902 or firstname.lastname@example.org.