From farm to food shelf

A new partnership connects the dots between dairy farmers and the Vermont Foodbank

BRATTLEBORO — The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed many of Vermont's systems to the point of breaking. Yet, while the virus has disrupted the community and the economy, it has also spurred creativity.

Thanks to a new partnership between the Vermont Community Foundation and the Vermont Foodbank, raw milk slated for disposal will instead be funneled to hungry households.

As COVID-19 has disrupted supply chains and businesses across the country, changing how often, when, and from whom consumers buy their groceries, Vermont dairy farmers have, in some cases, ended up dumping their surplus milk.

This dairy project aims to redirect the surplus milk to be processed into 2 percent milk and yogurt, bottled and packaged, and distributed through the Foodbank.

The state Agency of Agriculture helped coordinate the partnership, which comes with a $60,000 donation from the Vermont Community Foundation. This money will pay for processing the equivalent of 42,000 cups of yogurt and more than 11,500 gallons of 2 percent milk.

The Vermont Foodbank will distribute to the food to Vermonters through its Veggie Van Go program.

Joining in this effort are Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), Commonwealth Dairy, LLC (the Brattleboro-based producer of Green Mountain Creamery yogurt), and HP Hood.

Beginning this week, 1,152 gallons of milk will be distributed over the next 10 weeks, and 3,500 cases of yogurt will be distributed throughout May, said Nicole Whalen, director of communications and public affairs at the Foodbank.

“Due to changes in demand, the surplus of milk available from our Vermont dairy farms has grown over recent weeks and is highlighting the uncertainty they face today,” said Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts.

Tebbetts said he and his colleagues were “thrilled that we have found a process to redistribute agricultural product that otherwise would have gone to waste to serve our neighbors in the communities we call home.”

“With dairy farmers across the country struggling to redistribute their product, this collaboration is a win-win to curb unnecessary food waste and serve those in need,” said Esteve Torrens, CEO of Lactalis US Yogurt, owner of Commonwealth Dairy.

Depending on how local fundraising efforts go, an additional donation might be added to the one made by the Vermont Community Foundation.

“We are exploring how both the Brattleboro Rotary Club and the Brattleboro Sunrise Rotary Club can help close the gap in funding for the donation of milk to the Vermont Foodbank,” said Martin Cohn, speaking on behalf of both clubs.

The Vermont Foodbank, which serves more than 153,000 individuals each year, has seen demand double since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The partnership between the farmers, processors, food bank, and funders is a reason to celebrate innovation.

Yet COVID-19 has also highlighted the vulnerabilities in many of the state and federal systems, including milk pricing, which is set by federal legislation.

As a result of such systems, dairy farmers often receive less money for the milk than it costs to produce it. Or that, according to the organization Hunger Free Vermont, even before COVID-19, close to 60,000 Vermonters - many who are the end recipient of the milk and yogurt - live in food-insecure households.

COVID-19 didn't create the gaps; it just made them wider

Whalen says that COVID-19 has put the issue of milk dumping on people's radar, but the problem has existed for some time.

According to Whalen, the Foodbank has discussed the issue with the state Agency of Agriculture, with the state's congressional delegation, and with dairy farmers.

“We've been trying to connect the dots on this, and there are a lot of challenges around the ability to connect that milk to the charitable food system,” she said.

One challenge: milk's shelf life is relatively short compared to other goods.

Whalen explained that one way the charitable food system works is that grocery stores or warehouses donate food that is approaching its sell-by date.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, a sell-by date “tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.”

“We know how long we can keep these items and that they're still good after that date, and so we'll get big amounts of food being moved off the shelves of big food companies or grocery stores,” Whalen said. “We'll have volunteers sort the food and then we'll distribute it to a network of 215 partner food shelves and meal sites throughout the state.”

With dairy, distribution must happen quickly. So if the Foodbank receives a dairy donation that is two days from its sell-by date, it does not have enough time to get the items to food sites.

“So the ability to handle fresh food items can be challenging,” Whalen said.

The solution: the Veggie Van Go program will distribute the milk and yogurt over the next several weeks.

Approximately five years ago, the Foodbank launched the program as a way to supply hungry Vermonters with more fresh produce.

This program delivers produce directly to people in the community rather than going through the food shelf and meal site supply chain, Whalen said.

Numerous regulations around dairy have also discouraged efforts to get it into the charitable food system, she added.

For example, milk needs to be processed - pasteurized or made into cheese - before it can be distributed, she said.

That processing costs money the Foodbank doesn't have, she added, noting that the Vermont Community Foundation's donation made this project work.

The Foodbank has said that powdered milk is ideal for food-shelf distribution because the product has the longest, most shelf-stable life. Unfortunately, as far as Whalen knows, no Vermont-based processors produce powdered milk.

Whalen said she feels excited about the creative ways that organizations, businesses, and government are coming together during the pandemic.

“Within a crisis, there is an opportunity to do some new, exciting things, and we're seeing that happen every day,” she said. “It's really exciting to be at the nexus of that with this partnership.”

A new crisis or a bigger one?

As a result of the pandemic, Feeding America, the national network of partner food shelves, is predicting a 46-percent increase in food insecurity nationally over the next six months.

So for the network to scale up operations to meet the need with its already limited resources “is impossible, and so we need help in a lot of other ways,” Whalen said.

She added that trying to ramp up the Foodbank's services to meet a huge demand has held a mirror to the charitable food system's own vulnerabilities.

“The charitable food system is not set up to feed the masses alone,” she said. “During good times, this is a network that is functioning at the very upper levels of its capacity,” she said. “The network is already under-resourced to perform that service.”

The existing system can do only so much. “It takes the government stepping in to make sure we're taking care of people,” she said.

For example, the 3SquaresVT program, often referred to as “food stamps,” makes an even bigger difference for people than the Foodbank does, she said - or it would, that is, if the program were funded properly at the national level.

“In normal times, for every one meal provided by the Foodbank, 3SquaresVT provides nine,” she said.

Whalen hopes that the pandemic will shed light on how the country needs to find other ways to ensure that people can meet their needs rather than rely on the charitable food system.

Funding an emergency response

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vermont Community Foundation launched a response fund.

“Dairy is a huge part of our rural working landscape and economy - it is also a critical piece of 'who we are' as a state,” said Dan Smith, president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation.

Smith said that the VCF's grant came from all the partners “scoping out the cost” and estimating the amount necessary to purchase the fluid milk and pay first to have it hauled to processors, then the pasteurization, and, finally, the yogurt making.

This specific type of project is new for the Community Foundation, he said. As an organization, the foundation has helped fund general food-systems work, such as a five-year food and farm initiative from 2012 to 2017.

“I think it's a good lesson and a good reminder that the scale of the challenge requires a level of creativity and nimbleness on the part of partners if we're going to get through this in a way where we support our neighbors effectively,” Smith added.

According to Smith, when the Community Foundation launched its Response Fund, it focused on how to coordinate resources effectively, including state and federal funding. Smith said it was important to VCF to ensure that any philanthropy the organization could offer would fill gaps or augment other funding.

Smith said his organization, the Agency of Agriculture, and the Vermont FoodBank have been in “close contact” throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

He added that through multiple conversations he learned about the challenge dairy farmers were experiencing around a decreased demand for milk during the crisis. Institutions and restaurants were some of the big purchasers of dairy, but as schools closed, for instance, the dairy demand dropped.

Smith also learned that the level of food insecurity was increasing as more people found themselves out of work.

“With the right partnership, maybe there was something to be done there in terms of getting the milk, processing it, and getting it into the charitable food pipeline,” he said. “And I think we were fortunate that it was just a really good slate of partners willing to move quickly and really willing to take leadership of the effort.”

He estimates the whole project came together in approximately 10 days.

“I think you can never underestimate the power of Vermonters and the ability of Vermonters to dig in and try to help each other out,” he said. “The reason this grant worked is because a bunch of people came together to figure this out and it was really inspiring to be a part of.”

Lessons in the learning

According to Whalen, many of the people asking for help from the FoodBank have never needed support to put food on the table. Whalen hopes that this pandemic will reduce the stigma around hunger and poverty.

“Unfortunately, during normal times there is a lot of stigma around hunger, and around economic struggles and my hope is that right now this crisis is shedding light on the fact that there is no reason to place any blame,” she said.

Whalen said that the pandemic has spurred people to collaborate in new ways.

“There are opportunities to try new innovations and new collaborations,” she said. “And so many of them I really do hope are able to continue well beyond the pandemic.”

For example, the FoodBank is purchasing to-go meals from a Burlington-based restaurant, The Skinny Pancake.

She said she also views the dairy project in a similar light.

“This has helped elevate the issue of dairy going to waste and also the issue of hunger,” she said.

She hopes that others will be inspired and contribute to similar efforts.

Smith agrees that COVID-19 highlighted more gaps in the system than it created.

“The pandemic is really accelerating and highlighting a lot of the existing inequity that was present in our communities,” Smith said. “It didn't land on communities that were economically or socially resilient, it landed on communities that were really vulnerable.”

As the Foundation looks beyond COVID-19, Smith said, “The aspiration really is: How do we help communities recover to a place that is more resilient, more resilient economically, more resilient socially, more resilient physically.”

To him, this means thinking differently about some of the systems at work in the state and the impact they have on the people using them.

“We have to do better than getting back to where we were, because where we were wasn't that good for a lot of people,” he said.

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