Monday, March 17, 2008

From Farm to Foodbank: Gleaning Project Brings Fresh Veggies to Low-Income Tables

Originally published in The Barre Montpelier Times Argus

Sunday, March 16, 2008
By Mel Huff Staff Writer

SOUTH BARRE – Three volunteers and Theresa Snow, the founder of Salvation Farms, sorted potatoes in the Vermont Foodbank's warehouse Saturday morning, tossing the culls into a plastic garbage container marked "compost." Around the corner in a walk-in cooler, 30-bushel cardboard bins of sorted beets, rutabagas and turnips salvaged from Pete's Greens waited to be distributed.

"This is part of winter gleaning," Snow explained as she wiped a potato with a white cloth. Salvation Farms, the three-year-old gleaning project that she piloted in Lamoille County, saves crops that would otherwise go to waste and makes them available to Vermonters in need. Last month the organization became a program of the Vermont Foodbank.

Snow, a sinewy woman with intensely blue eyes, sees the relationship as a base for spreading Salvation Farms' gleaning model throughout the state. The Vermont Foodbank sees the relationship as expressing its mission of building partnerships to end hunger in Vermont.

In the past three years, Salvation Farms has gleaned more than 88,000 pounds of apples, beets, carrots, chard, collards, kale, green beans, garlic scapes, fennel, cucumbers, potatoes, winter and summer squash – more than 40 crops in all. Some farms are gleaned on a regular schedule. Other farmers call when they have a crop they want gleaned to avoid tilling it under.

In Lamoille County, Salvation Farms recruited volunteers from high schools, colleges, correctional centers, a foster care program, Reach Up, Lamoille County Mental Health and other programs, to harvest excess crops. Snow and Jen O'Donnell, the organization's assistant director, worked side by side with the volunteers in the field, showing them what to pick, how to judge ripeness and which blemishes were acceptable.

They also recruited drivers to distribute the food to local emergency food shelves, nursing homes, senior meal sites, early learning centers and adult day care centers. When they harvested more than they could distribute, they donated the excess to the Vermont Foodbank.

Now, as member of the foodbank staff, Snow has broader responsibilities and a new title: program director of agricultural resources. She has two goals: establishing the Salvation Farms Gleaning Network and coordinating the Foodbank Farm Network.

The Foodbank Farming Network is a collaboration – a kind of CSA arrangement – between the Vermont Foodbank and Foodworks at Two Rivers Center. In 2006, the Vermont Foodbank first contracted with Food Works to grow 40,000 pounds of produce. The Foodbank then sold shares of the crops to its member agencies. Snow sees foodbank farming as a complement to gleaning because it provides the foodbank with the certainty of having a determined amount of produce.

One of Snow's first tasks is building relationships with farmers across the state. Currently, she's creating a database of Vermont farms, "from dairy to meat to eggs to vegetables – and fruit, too," she said. "We want to secure as much Vermont-grown food as possible, because we feel that it is more economical. It is certainly more responsible when you think about resource management and costs associated with bringing food far distances. It's bound to benefit the foodbank as well as the farm economy." And it will make locally-grown food – commonly considered an elitist luxury – available to people served by the foodbank.

Identifying "the density of producers and need" will determine where the next gleaning projects are established. "It has been our goal to inspire communities to do this so each community is serving itself, supported by the resources of the Vermont Foodbank," Snow said. She anticipates "melding" the Foodbank Farming Network and the Gleaning Network, so that when gleaners are not available to pick crops, farmers can have fields harvested and sell the crops to the Foodbank at a reduced price, rather than letting them go to waste.

Snow envisions as many as a dozen grassroots gleaning groups spreading across the state, supported by local steering committees that "will have their own voice and their own character." The steering committees will be made up of people who donate a certain number of hours to organizational tasks or to working in the fields in order to bring gleaning to their communities.

"They should have a presence and an identity in the community – hold events, host workshops, do tabling at colleges and high schools, be involved in farm-to-school conversations and hunger activities," Snow said. They will "take an active role in a remedy and a solution, not just providing a band-aid."

"There's a lot of infrastructure that's going to need to be put into place (at the foodbank) – logistics regarding reporting, recording, liability issues in terms of volunteers, expectations," Snow observed. "The foodbank itself needs to increase its infrastructure – its ability to handle large volumes of fresh foods, to lightly process these fresh foods in our kitchen. We need to make supplies available. We need to make our trucking available. These are all logistics to be ironed out."

Snow had long been pondering how to expand Salvation Farms beyond Lamoille County when the opportunity of joining the Vermont Foodbank arose. "It has been our goal to inspire communities to do this. We weren't quite sure how it was going to happen – whether we would be able to use a statewide nonprofit as a vehicle. I'm not sure what's going to happen on the way, but I can see the vision at the end of the tunnel," she declared.

No comments: