Keeping it local

Farm-to-plate localvore movement takes hold, verging on sustainability

BELLOWS FALLS — The localvore movement is finally starting to take hold.

Popolo, which opened recently on the Square in Bellows Falls, is using local food - “local” defined as “within 60 miles.”

The Gleanery, which will open in the fall in Putney, will feature food prepared from fruits, vegetables, and meats produced by local growers and farmers.

Those restaurants are two examples of new businesses spawning along the Connecticut River Valley, including several restaurants, an old-fashioned village grocer and sundries market, and community gardens.

Tying these endeavors together is the vision of people whose passion is food and feeding people, supporting local growers and producers, and assembling people with similar interests to make it happen.

Keeping it local in Bellows Falls

Popolo, which means “people” in Italian, is an Italian restaurant in the newly renovated Windham Hotel. A back deck, the continuing scene of local troubadours, summer drinks, and delicious local food-sourced appetizers, happens to overlook one of the first canals, maybe the oldest, in the United States.

The restaurant is managed by three partners, Gary Smith, Kristen Fehrenbach, and Chef John-Michael Maciejewski, who are backed by some 25 investors.

It began, Smith said, when “Kristen, John-Michael, and I proposed the idea of Popolo to friends [...] with an affinity for community projects.”

“Within a few months, we'd gathered together a group who funded our venture,” he said. While some investors are from afar, others are buying a stake in their own community's business success.

“Locavesting, like the localvore movement, appears to be on the rise as people begin to realize that keeping money in your local economy makes for not only good communities, but for good business,” Smith explained.

Community-supported restaurant

Ismail Samad, Alice James, and Elizabeth Ehrenberg, who are in the throes of opening a new restaurant in Putney, the Gleanery, moved to the area for the same fertile food-to-plate environment.

The trio met at the Putney Inn a few years ago, and when the Front Porch Café folded in the Tavern building last year, conversations started organically occurring based on “our combined personal assets” being ripe for a community supported restaurant in Putney.

Based on the community-supported agriculture model, the restauranteurs have attracted almost 60 members, raising about $45,000 of their target goal of $65,000 needed to open this fall.

Along the way, they have traded for goods and services from legal and marketing professionals as well as from their architect.

In addition to meals, the Gleanery will offer a variety of goods and services based on and around local food.

Samad, the chef, will offer a variety of classes in the kitchen on topics that range from canning and preserving foods to knife techniques and other cooking skills.

The architectural plans call for a “chef's table” in one corner of the kitchen, where “people can sit for a long meal and converse with the chef while he works,” said Samad, pointing out that the idea was inspired by sushi bars.

“We'll be able to talk about the food, how it's prepared, where it comes from,” he said.

Procuring the food

Myriad and complex connections spiral outward from the Great Falls Food Hub network, Transition Putney, and Post Oil Solutions, creating a sustainable food culture that is locally grown, locally produced, and locally consumed.

The Great Falls Food Hub is dedicated to “[m]aking locally produced food available and affordable to the people of Windham, Windsor, Cheshire, and Sullivan counties while providing a fair return to farmers.”

The Garden Collaborative, supported by the Windham Farm to Food Network, Post Oil Solutions, and Our Place, is growing and getting food to individuals and families locally through nine community garden locations in and around Bellows Falls.

All these connections create a sustainable network from which restaurants and grocers will be able to buy the local ingredients.

In Bellows Falls, Valley Provisions, which opens Sept. 5, has a vision of “providing local farmers a place where they can sell their wares year-round...and eventually [buying] as much as 95 percent from Windham County and just across the river,” said Bonnie North, co-owner with Oona Madden, a former restauranteur who now works as a real estate agent.

Community gardens have nearly doubled this last year, and harvesting has begun. Mary Lou Massucco, an art teacher, is working with kids through what started as an after-school program.

“Our school garden was relocated to Hetty Green Park (behind TD Bank) because of the renovations,” said Massucco, who works with kids from Bellows Falls Middle School.

The other gardens are at the Bellows Falls playground (behind the town shed near the ball field), at Our Place, at Bellows Falls Central Elementary, at Bellows Falls Union High School, and at the Compass School.

On a recent August day, Massucco brought two young helpers with her to the garden, Reno and Nic Tuttle of Bellows Falls, to participate in the after-school program that includes gardening.

Nic, 13, said that “it was a lot of shoveling and raking” at first to get the garden set up last spring at the new location, but the raised garden beds are now lush with tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, and cucumbers.

Reno, 11, said he likes to “pick all of it...and make something spicy with it.”

The brothers have an uncle with a farm but neither has spent much time there. They both “like to get outside,” harvest their own food, and bring it home. Then they like to “cook something” for their family and themselves.

According to North, Valley Provisions is discussing ideas and options with the Great Falls Food Hub.

“We'd like to see a portion of some of the community plots devoted to cash crops that Valley Provisions could contract to purchase wholesale, and retail here,” North said.

“This would help to make those gardening efforts a little more economically self-sustaining - and provide folks with truly local produce,” he said.

Lisa Pitcher, director of Our Place Drop-In Center, talks about the role that the social-service agency and soup kitchen's two gardens are taking on in the community.

“We're trying to use [them] as an education tool, a community building tool,” said Pitcher, encouraging “garden grown plots in a yard or a neighbor's yard,” which she calls “therapeutic to the community.”

“The act of producing and watching something grow is good for the kids,” Pitcher said.

She said there's something therapeutic, too, for adults in getting their hands dirty working with the earth for a few hours each day.

Pitcher added that “Matt, our chef, has taken on extra hours” to care for the garden across the street and that a Vermont Associates employee, part of a statewide older-worker retraining program, comes in to help process the food.

“It's becoming clearer that processing and freezing the food” is necessary as more people in need are accessing resources that have less and less support from donations in an ailing economy,” Pitcher said.

“When it starts getting cooler, we'll be doing a lot of canning and freezing [so that] people can have locally grown fresh food this winter,” she said.

Massucco said the garden is popular with people who live in the neighborhood, too.

“There's a 95-year-old woman who lives a block from here, and she tells me she really enjoys walking over here and plucking a few cherry tomatoes to take back home with her,” said Massucco, adding that the appeal is more than the food.

“She likes seeing the garden here,” she said.

Our Place has had no problems with vandalism or theft either, she said. But then again, when you are talking about community gardens, “what is stealing food?” she asked.

“If they need it, they are welcome to it,” she said.

With eyes wide open following four natural disasters in one year which repeatedly brought neighbors together to help one another, Vermonters are tackling the hard questions and building local community-based food resources that are sustainable.

Building a local food economy will “get us through hard times,” North said, looking toward a time of depleted fossil-fuel reserves. “It's clear to me that when post-oil arrives, the shelves of the local supermarkets and co-ops will be empty.”

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