BELLOWS FALLS — In late-September, Food Connects's Food Hub set a new sales record: just over $11,500 in one week. All items the Food Hub sold were grown or produced in Vermont and southern New Hampshire.
The Food Hub is a program run by Food Connects, a nonprofit that started in 2013 with a mission to deliver “locally produced food as well as educational and consulting services aimed at transforming local food systems.”
The Food Hub sells fruit, vegetables, meats, dairy foods, and value-added items from 45 local farmers and producers through the Food Connects website.
Their customers include approximately 100 wholesale buyers in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and retail and cooperative stores in Windham County, a small part of Windsor County, and Cheshire County in New Hampshire.
One of the Food Hub's steady customers is Cafe Services, the food-management company that operates the kitchens and cafeterias for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union's schools.
Of the six schools in the supervisory union, Cafe Services serves five of them, said Food Service Director Rich Curtis. “I feed about 950 kids total,” he said.
During Food Connects's record-setting week, Curtis contributed to the Food Hub's sales by receiving nine cases of apples, five cases of lettuce, three bushels of potatoes, and one bushel of cauliflower at the Bellows Falls Union High School.
It was all grown in Putney, Dummerston, Bellows Falls, and Westminster, at Green Mountain Orchards, Dutton Berry Farm, Basin Farm, and Harlow Farm, respectively.
Apples, potatoes, lettuce
Other local producers who supplied food to the school's cafeteria via the Food Hub in the past two years include Archway Farm, Commonwealth Dairy, Echo Farm, Firebelly Farm, Grafton Village Cheese Company, and True North Granola.
Curtis ordered $4,673 of products this September, October, and November from Food Connects for the Bellows Falls schools. This is an 80 percent increase compared with last year. Since January 2015, Curtis has purchased more than $20,000 from the Food Hub.
The three items Curtis buys the most from the Food Hub are apples from Green Mountain Orchards, potatoes from Dutton Berry Farm and Peaslee's, and lettuce from Harlow Farm. During harvest season, Curtis orders five or six cases of apples every week - “I order eight cases in a good week,” he said - with most of them going to the district's elementary schools.
Curtis said he orders produce from the Food Hub “because it's local. It's guaranteed to be local. The state wants us to buy local, and I want to buy local.”
Sarah Loomis, Food Connects Administrative and Marketing Manager, pointed out that Food Connects can “source-identify” all of the food it distributes through the Food Hub.
Some of Curtis's students work at local orchards and farms, he said, and may have picked the fruits and vegetables that end up in their cafeteria lunches.
How much local food Curtis orders through the Food Hub varies throughout the year, depending on seasonal availability and his menu's needs, but “in a good week, about 25 percent or so comes from Food Connects,” he said.
In other weeks, he receives at least 10 percent of his produce from the Food Hub.
When planning menus for a school cafeteria, a Food Service director has to keep a sharp eye on the budget. Curtis said the Food Hub prices are comparable, and “apples right now are considerably cheaper from the Food Hub” than they are from his other vendors.
“Cafe Services has been a big supporter of both Food Connects and our Food Hub,” Loomis said.
Food Connects supports Cafe Services, too.
The organization helped Curtis, and food service directors at other local schools, get kitchen equipment such as immersion blenders, potato wedgers, and industrial-size salad spinners and food processors to help prepare the fresh produce they purchase. In the 2016-17 school year alone, Food Connects spent about $4,000 on these items using grant and program funding.
The organization helps schools encourage their students to eat more fruits and vegetables through the Farm to School program, which “sets the scene and actively increases meal participation and education for students and professional development for food providers,” Loomis said.
Some of the components of the Farm to School program are “Try a Bite,” which offers students samples of fruit- and vegetable-based snacks in the cafeteria and classrooms, and the “Vermont Harvest of the Month.”
Teachers can develop a curriculum around these programs, and food providers can “align what's available from Vermont in that season,” Loomis said.
This all adds up to more sales and more local farmers and producers getting their wares onto more cafeteria trays.
'Momentum continues to build'
In schools buying from the Food Hub, “purchasing has about doubled since last year,” Loomis said. “The momentum continues to build,” she added.
“The farmers love the service we provide,” said Loomis, who noted, “farmers are super-busy and don't always have time to seek new markets.”
Right now, the Food Hub's yearly sales - which include schools, retail stores, and other outlets - are about $350,000, and Loomis said the plan is to increase sales to $1 million annually by 2020.
Earlier this autumn, the Food Hub recently expanded its geographic footprint into Cheshire County by merging with Monadnock Menus, and they recently received a $50,000 matching grant.
Other Food Hub plans include “going into value-added products, mostly for retail, such as lightly-processed foods like flash-frozen produce and quince paste,” Loomis said.
“We're excited about the next phase,” she said, “and getting more local food into the community to boost the local economy.”