Banking on Fresh
A pioneering partnership brings local produce to Mad River Valley food banks
Wednesdays this summer and fall have been like Christmas at the Kingsbury Market Garden in Warren. That’s when volunteers from area food shelves come to pick up their cases of fresh produce. The bounty can sometimes be overwhelming — on a recent Wednesday, for instance, when the selection makes Ruth Haskins of the Duxbury Elf’s Shelf squeal.
“What do we have today?” she asks farmer Aaron Locker as he carries bins of vegetables to her car.
Locker ticks off a list of produce: russet potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, onions.
“Oooh, yes!” Haskins says, her face lighting up.
The 178 families her food shelf serves will be thrilled — Locker’s broccoli has been a huge hit with Haskins’ clients. They can’t get enough of it, she says.
If it seems unusual for food-shelf staff to be picking up produce from a local farm much as CSA members collect their weekly allotments, that’s because it is. Most food shelves get their food from federal commodities programs and donations from individuals and businesses. When they offer fresh produce, it often comes from gleaning — collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields.
The Kingsbury Farm and the 10 food shelves and meal sites of the Mad River Valley have forged a unique partnership in its inaugural year. They’ve teamed up to give families who are at risk for hunger or experiencing it access to fresh produce every week during the growing season. Their link: the Vermont Foodbank.
Three years ago, the 22-acre Kingsbury Farm was put up for sale. Until recently, the Kingsbury family, longtime dairy farmers, leased the land to local farmers for hay. In an effort to preserve the property, the Vermont Land Trust purchased it with the help of the valley community. But once the land was in trust, the community partners needed to find someone to run the farm. The Vermont Foodbank’s staff was intrigued, says John Sayles, chief executive officer of the nonprofit.
While a few food banks around the country operate small farms, it’s a risky proposition. Growing fresh, local, organic produce typically costs more than just buying the conventional equivalent. Plus, there are many variables, such as weather, that make relying on crops tricky.
But the Foodbank’s leadership decided to give it a try. In 2009, the organization purchased the Kingsbury Farm with the intention of using it to supplement its store of commodity and donation food.
“We wanted to send a message that the fresh, local movement had to be for everyone,” Sayles says.
The Foodbank invested $400,000, raised mostly from grants, in the fixer-upper property. The new owners shored up the foundation of the barn and turned a five-bay garage into a bakery/store. A new septic system was installed in the farmhouse, and the irrigation equipment was upgraded.
Finally, Sayles’ staff brought in Locker and his wife, Suzanne Slomin, to farm the property. The Foodbank leases the farm to the pair in exchange for $30,000 worth of produce at wholesale value. That averages out to about 30,000 pounds of food distributed to area food shelves and meal sites. Per the partnership agreement, the Foodbank takes care of the capital cost of the farm, while Locker and Slomin pick up the carrying costs.
The Foodbank owns the land and the buildings, while Locker and Slomin own the equipment, including two moveable greenhouses. The pair live at the farm, and Slomin, who is a trained chef, runs the bakery and the farm store where they sell their own produce and value-added products.
Annually, the Foodbank distributes 7.5 million pounds of food to 280 food shelves, soup kitchens, shelters, senior centers and after-school programs around Vermont. Of that, about one million pounds consist of fresh produce, which can come from all over the country.
Because most of that produce is shipped, it doesn’t include items that spoil quickly, such as salad greens. But food shelves that pick up produce from Kingsbury can distribute it on the same day, giving their clients access to more than just potatoes, carrots and other food that travels well. So far, says Locker, the first-year partnership with the Foodbank, which both parties refer to as a fellowship, has worked out well.
One of the recipients is the Mad River Valley Interfaith Council food shelf. Nancy Smith, who runs the organization, can’t say enough about the addition of fresh, local produce to its offerings. “The quality is excellent. Aaron never stops thinking and planning,” she says. “Everything is totally clean and fabulous.”
At the Interfaith Council food shelf, beets, squash and salad greens have been hits. Kale has been less popular. Smith provides her clients with recipes for each week’s selection, much as a traditional CSA might. The simpler the better, she reasons. Most of the more than 100 clients the Interfaith Council food shelf serves work more than one job and have no time to cook extravagant meals.
Haskins at the Duxbury Elf’s Shelf also provides recipes to go with the Kingsbury produce. Creating them is part of the fun of handing out fresh food, she says.
One of the beneficiaries of the farm’s harvest this year has been the Mad River Valley Senior Center in Waitsfield, which offers lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well as daily dishes through Meals on Wheels. The large component of local farm produce in the lunches makes them more of a community effort, says volunteer Gail Hietzker.
On a recent Thursday, seniors were treated to scalloped potatoes, steamed cauliflower and broccoli, and a carrot-heavy slaw, all made with produce from Kingsbury Farm. All senior meal menus must be approved by the Vermont Council on Aging to ensure elders are getting enough calories and nutrients. Loraine Wimble, the head cook for the senior center, says the Foodbank’s partnership with Locker allows it to serve fresh vegetables “without going into the poorhouse.”
The growing season has been successful for Locker, but the farm’s partnership with the Foodbank has not been without controversy. At a public forum held in August, some valley farmers expressed the opinion that the Kingsbury Farm was driving costs down while being subsidized by the Foodbank. Some had the misconception that the Foodbank was funding the farm stand — that is, the commercial component of the farm. Both Locker and Sayles say this isn’t the case. The farm stand is a separate enterprise and doesn’t have anything to do with the couple’s Foodbank obligation.
“There was a misunderstanding about the model. We could have done a better job communicating proactively,” Sayles says.
Whatever its relationship to the other farms with which it competes for paying customers, Kingsbury has provided food to hundreds of food-insecure families who might not otherwise have had access to organic produce grown just miles from their homes. The farm’s contribution to the Foodbank’s cornucopia is essential, says Sayles, especially in a time of increasing need and decreasing donations.
“In the past, food banks took what came,” Sayles says. “Now we’re looking for the most nutritious, freshest food for people who are hungry. And we’re trying to source locally.”