BRATTLEBORO—Food Connects, a new organization with its early roots formed under another nonprofit, launched at the end of June dedicated to cultivating healthy food and farm connections in classrooms, cafeterias, and communities.
Formerly under the auspices of Brattleboro-based Post Oil Solutions, the Windham County Farm to School program and other food-related programing begun about five years ago, have reached a self-sustaining level and become an independent organization, said Richard Berkfield, executive director of Food Connects.
Co-founders Katherine Gillespie, Berkfield, and Hanna Jenkins, who managed the programs under POS, will lead Food Connects.
Berkfield and Gillespie anticipate that Food Connects will remain grant-funded under POS’ 501(c)(3) status while the fledgling organization awaits its own federal nonprofit status.
Food Connects will work within and around Windham County to increase the number of schools and community institutions, such as hospitals, buying from local farms and food producers.
“We’re challenging taste buds; we’re challenging behavior,” said Berkfield.
It’s also challenging work, he said. The population Food Connects works with — low-income residents, teachers, parents, new farmers, food service staff — are also people already stretched to the max.
For more than two generations, people have developed taste buds geared toward the processed food inherent in the industrial and fast-food systems, he said.
“We’ve gotten this far because of community support,” said Berkfield.
Berkfield said the new organization will focus on growing three areas: the Farm to School program, Farm to Community program, and Farm to Institutions program. Food Connects will also continue running the Neighborhood Market farmers once held on Elliot Street.
This summer, the Market moved to the front lawn of Green Street School.
Katherine Gillespie, Farm to School Program Manager, said connection truly is at the heart of Food Connects.
“I want more people in our community to access local food,” she said, adding that much of what Food Connects does includes connecting existing resources rather than reinventing the wheel.
In addition to schools across Windham County, said Gillespie, schools in New Hampshire have expressed interest in partnering with Food Connects to start farm to school programs.
In Gillespie’s opinion, “Fundamentally, everyone has a right to health, and to be healthy we all need access [to nutritious food].”
Food Connects is part of the state-wide Farm to School network, Berkfield said. The state hopes to have all Vermont schools buying locally sourced food by 2020.
The organization is one of three regional Farm to School groups, along with the Upper Valley Farm to School Network and Green Mountain Farm-to-School. These groups receive funding from the Agency of Agriculture and the Vermont Community Foundation.
Berkfield said that “Food Connects is committed to go deeper in Windham County” as part of this effort.
Currently, nine Windham County schools participate in Farm to School. Informally, the organization reaches 30 schools through other food-related programing.
Berkfield said the organization hopes to continue growing but is “remaining open and vague for now” on plans.
A challenge to growing the organization, he added, is maintaining quality programs and resources.
The organization wants to “do more without sacrificing quality” in the schools it currently serves, said Berkfield.
The Farm to Community program includes the Neighborhood Market and local buying clubs. Food Connects intends to expand the buying clubs.
The buying clubs help families on lower incomes access affordable local food. The food is delivered to parents at local schools. The food itself is purchased through the Windham Farm and Food delivery system, which serves schools and other institutions in the Windham County area.
Berkfield said the idea is for Windham Farm to Food to become an independent organization within a year.
The program covers its costs, but Berkfield said he hopes sales will increase this year. The tricky aspect of the program is that it serves markets — new farmers and households with low incomes — traditionally considered unprofitable.
“Windham Farm to Food is an experiment” that has managed to keep the price of local food down and operated on a small budget, he said.
The program operates on a 15 percent service fee collected from institutions, and delivers twice a week.
Food Connects staff also teach cooking skills as part of the organization’s programming. Its newest program, Farm to Institution, will focus on getting more local food into local institutions and cafeterias at large community institutions such as hospitals.
The Vermont Community Foundation has provided financial support for POS’ food programing since 2008, said Berkfield in a press release. In 2012, the Foundation’s Food and Farm Initiative awarded just under $35,000 to POS/Food Connects.
POS continues to be a community organizing initiative which also supports and launches “new projects consistent with developing sustainable, resilient and socially just communities.”