Town and Village

Pilot program offers Windham Northeast students organic milk from Miller Farm

WESTMINSTER — The opening of the 2023–24 school year brought great "moos" for hundreds of Vermont elementary and high school students in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union: new organic milk dispensers in their cafeterias that will not only introduce them to the benefits and great taste of fresh organic milk, but also help the regional economy by providing milk sourced from a local certified organic dairy farm.

Miller Farm in Vernon was able to make equipment upgrades needed to provide bulk organic white and chocolate milk to the schools, thanks to grant funding.

According to a news release, the Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership is spearheading this pilot program and its founder, former Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg, says it can provide the blueprint for similar local farm-to-school programs. The goal is not only to introduce youngsters to organic foods, but also help local economies by giving organic dairy farmers a financial boost through school sales.

The organic dairy sector in the Northeast has faced significant challenges due to consecutive crises - first, market disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, followed by contract terminations by a large national organic company in 2022. The impact is especially evident in Vermont, where (1)62 organic dairies were closed between January 2020 and August 2023.

In recent years, a combination of economic pressures including inflation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine that disrupted a major source of the world's organic feed, trade disputes in India, increased transportation costs, labor shortages, and extreme weather events such as drought in 2022 followed by excessive rain and flooding this summer have pushed the cost of producing Northeast organic milk to a breaking point.

"This project is a superb illustration of how local communities and school systems can use their buying power to make profound, game-changing investments to expedite the long-term health of our rural economy," says Hirshberg. "This is a winning proposition for our communities, our farms, our environment and our children."

Windham Northeast schools participating in this year's pilot program include Westminster Center School, Bellows Falls Union High School, Central Elementary School in Bellows Falls, and Saxtons River Elementary School.

"This new program is an opportunity to make a systemic and scalable impact on the food system throughout Vermont and beyond, paving the way for connecting local dairies with public schools, the largest institutional buyer of milk in most Vermont towns," says Harley Sterling, WNESU school nutrition director.

According to Pete Miller of Miller Farm, "This model of local small processors working with area schools could be replicated across the region and across the nation. It's so important for each generation to know where food comes from: when people can draw a straight line between a product and a producer, there is built in a certain amount of accountability and trust."

Lauren Griswold, Local Food Access & Farm to Institution program director at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), co-director of VT-FEED, and key contributor to the pilot, explains that this project "is about Vermonters taking care of Vermonters. Our schools spend $20 million on food per year, so there's tremendous potential in localizing that spending to benefit our farms and our kids. NOFA-VT is thrilled to support this project that does just that, especially for Vermont organic dairy, given the past few years."

Projections by NOFA-VT indicate that an additional 30 organic dairies may be lost by the end of 2023, a trend mirrored in other northeastern states. The consequences of these closures are far-reaching, including severe economic repercussions for rural communities in the Northeast, potential loss of vital ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and habit conservation, and a greater reliance on products from farms located thousands of miles away, resulting in longer and more complex supply chains.

"The plight of local dairy farms remains a paramount concern, but this pilot program also focuses on schools as our communities' most important investments in our children's futures," says Hirshberg. "All kids, no matter their background, deserve food grown without toxic chemicals. Serving them fresh, locally produced organic milk gives them a healthy head start. And Miller Farm milk is incredibly delicious - the students will love it!"

This Town and Village item was submitted to The Commons.

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