At town meeting in 2018, the South Royalton Food Shelf made a modest request: They asked for $500 per month, totaling $6,000 annually, from the town budget to purchase fresh food and shelf-stable goods for local families in need. After some discussion, one resident rose to the microphone and said he felt the town could do better for its most vulnerable citizens; how about $10,000 instead? The voters approved the increased amount.
Fast forward to today, and the food shelf served about 4,000 people in the past year, says director Joshua Moore. “The money from the town is used exclusively for food,” he said. And the bounty has grown. Thanks to a regional program, plus the money from the town, over 14,000 pounds of food was delivered to the food shelf by Willing Hands, an Upper Valley organization that collects and distributes fresh food, plus over 900 pounds from Black River Produce, a Vermont-based food distributor, and even more from several local farms and community gardens. The donations included fresh food like produce, eggs and bread. Now, the food shelf is working with volunteers to build an addition to the building.
South Royalton’s is a story that is repeated around our state, in which one in four residents experience hunger. Increasingly, towns and planning districts are finding ways to help the hungry in their communities while also bringing in local farms and food producers to help solve the problem.
A series of public forums in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties several years ago, for example, led to the creation of a food-access collaborative. “In every town, food access and the connection to local farms came to the top of the list,” says Koi Boynton, a coordinator with Northwest Vermont Healthy Roots Collaborative. “The collaborative is really about communities wanting a better connection between well-being for residents and support [for] the farming community.”
Now, partners from economic development, land conservation, and economic services, work together to provide services like gleaning, Farm to School programming, business support, local food and farm events, and facilitating connections between wholesale purchasers like cafeterias and food markets with local food producers.
The collaborative’s efforts have had many impacts, including an increase of fresh produce at the local food shelves, and health clinic food sites that offer meals. The majority of produce was gleaned from areas farms — meaning, unmarketable fresh food was collected from farm fields — and some was donated from about 14 partnering farms. In total, 24,000 pounds of fresh food was added last year.
Both of these examples are included in a new Local Planning for Food Access Toolkit that is available from the Vermont Farm to Plate Network. It’s a free resource focused on improving food access through municipal and regional plans, and was created with support and input from 20 experts from a wide range of food system organizations, state agencies, and regional commissions. The hope is that more communities will work to address hunger using the resources included in the free downloadable document.
“Like water and shelter, food access is one of those things we take for granted until it’s not there,” says Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission. Plus, he points out, access to food is more than a function of being able to pay for it — it can also be about mobility, land use, local economic conditions, and other factors.
In other words, he says, “Can you get to where the food is, or can the food get to you? Do local land-use regulations create barriers to food production and access? What kinds of food and food retail does the local economy currently support?”
Food access requires thoughtful and intentional planning and implementation, and the new Toolkit provides multiple pathways for planning commissions and citizen groups to find food access solutions.
Other featured successes stories in the Toolkit include the Duxbury Town Plan Chapter on Food and Agriculture, the Brownsville Community Store, Fresh Start Community Farm in Newport, C.I.D.E.R. in Grand Isle, and nutrition education in Morristown.
As in the example of Northwest Vermont Healthy Roots, food access planning is often part assisting hungry citizens and another part supporting farms. Boynton said their local initiative was exactly that combination, and that residents were troubled not only by community hunger but also by the decline in farm viability they were seeing around them.
“Supporting the economic viability of local farms and increasing food access for all community members are often treated as separate, or even conflicting, objectives,” says Sarah Danly, with Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, the organization which oversees the Farm to Plate Network. “The Farm to Plate Network, however, works to address these issues simultaneously, as both are necessary for economic stability and thriving communities.”
Over the coming year, the Vermont Farm to Plate Network, which is comprised of food producers and agriculture-focused organizations, will provide on-the-ground advising for interested communities. Program staff say that bringing a wide variety of expertise directly into communities is the key to making lasting impact. The development of this Toolkit showed that every community’s local food system challenges and opportunities are complex and unique.