3.10.2017 – Town Meeting and the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center

To complete the Town Meeting Week report, Rep. Matt Trieber and I visited Brookline, Grafton, and Windham on Tuesday. The really good news was that we made it to the Grafton meeting before they adjourned! These visits were all cordial and the questions and comments were good. There were a number of questions about the budget, which Matt, sitting on the Appropriations Committee was able to answer. There were other questions about water quality and agriculture-related topics that are more in my wheelhouse.

In Grafton, someone asked about the deep cut the State Library had taken in recent years. Matt’s response was that at the time the decreases were made, the State Library didn’t have people advocating for it and it was cut significantly. I remember when there was a regional library in Dummerston and people from Windham would drive there to take books out for their children. Windham has a wonderful, though at the time smaller, library and the regional library was another good resource. That branch closed a while ago and if I remember correctly, the books were distributed to Brattleboro and other public libraries.

As a member of the Windham and Grafton libraries, I appreciate what they do and what they can offer. One of the keys to children learning to read is to have parents reading to them at an early age. For families that struggle to make ends meet, a library can play a huge role in that practice.

All together it was a great day culminating with lunch in Windham. We have an old-fashioned pot luck that is always delicious. I was once again able to get my spinach lasagna baked and up to the Meeting House before we hit the road for Brookline. I appreciate having the opportunity to meet with people and, more importantly, I always learn something.

A few weeks ago as my committee was taking introductory testimony, we heard from a man named Greg Cox who is a founder of the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center (VFFC) (vermontfarmersfoodcenter.org) in Rutland. Greg and his team are an inspiration so I thought I would include a report on their work.

Greg is a farmer in West Rutland who grows vegetables and raises animals. He pointed out that Rutland was the home of the first farmers’ market in Vermont, as well as the first winter farmers’ market. Greg talked about the role of agriculture in Rutland’s history with strong dairy, wool, and turkey-raising sectors. I remember hearing stories about turkeys being walked to Boston before the days of better transportation – it’s hard to imagine such an endeavor!

Greg then talked about the numbers – how much money is spent on food and how the amount that is spent locally has increased over the last several years. He sees this as a real opportunity for Vermont farmers to expand. Interestingly, this is the same thing we’ve heard and seen success with as we have considered Farm to Plate, Farm to School, and the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative.

What Greg started in Rutland, along with a team of grassroots volunteer helpers, has been to create the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center. The goal is the rebuilding of the infrastructure necessary to expand food storage and aggregation facilities and to increase markets and market access for locally-produced and value-added products. This is being done on just under three acres of industrially-zoned land in downtown Rutland. VFFC is part of non-profit 501(c)(3) Vermont Farmers’ Market Education Center, Inc. that was founded in 2012 in Rutland.

One of the interesting programs that has been a result of VFFC is called Health Care Share (HCS). The slogan of HCS is “food is medicine”. Concern was expressed that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars, known as 3SquaresVT or food stamps in Vermont, were being spent on poor quality food, contributing to ill health and childhood obesity.

Working with the hospital and primary health care providers, VFFC set about increasing access to and consumption of healthier food for at-risk families – essentially a prescription for healthy food. Working with farmers who were trying to increase their markets and underserved youth who needed direction in their lives, a symbiotic program has been developed that helps 120 families access more nutritious, local food; establish healthier eating habits; and decrease health care costs. Greg claims that he has seen drug addicts trade their addiction to drugs and cigarettes for healthy food. At the same time, new and emerging farmers are being paid for their food and underserved youth are working with the farmers learning how to grow food. I love these win-win-win-win stories!

Greg also spoke about the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP), which is a federal program that awards grants to the states. The goal is to provide coupons to low-income senior citizens so that they can purchase more fresh food including vegetables, fruits, fresh-cut herbs, and honey. These coupons can be exchanged for these products at farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture programs, and roadside stands. For more information, go to https://www.fns.usda.gov/sfmnp/senior-farmers-market-nutrition-program-sfmnp, which will give you information on how to apply.

Greg talked about the fact that he doesn’t put any prices on his products at the Rutland Farmers’ Market. This is because he wants to encourage seniors to buy his product and he worries that if the cost they see on a sign is too high for their budgets they won’t, even if they have the SFMNP coupons. So it seems that Greg has a sliding scale for his products and that he is not only a visionary but a compassionate humanitarian as well.

The VFFC is still in development and could use help. The Farmers’ Hall, where the Rutland Winter Farmers’ Market takes place, is complete. Plans for the other buildings on the property include the aggregation and storage facility and a commercial kitchen to be used for value-added products and educational purposes. These include teaching the Health Care Share participants cooking skills, as well as “a Community Kitchen Institute – a training program for unemployed and underemployed Vermonters who are interested in food-related careers”. Donations are accepted on the website and greatly appreciated.