BRATTLEBORO -- Four years ago when the first Farm to School Conference was held in Brattleboro, about 30 people showed up to talk about ways to bring more locally grown food into the school system. Since then the number of schools across the state with school gardens has grown to about 55 percent.
Schools, as well as hospitals and nursing homes, are making a greater effort to highlight locally sourced food products. And ever-growing food hubs from Brattleboro to Burlington are working to make it easier for farmers, consumers and institutions to connect.
When this year's Farm to School Conference was held Thursday, registration had to be cut off at about 130, with local food enthusiasts from Massachusetts and New Hampshire traveling to Brattleboro to see how Vermont has been able to grow its local food system one beet at a time.
The Strolling of the Heifers has put together its second annual Locavore index, which rates the 50 states and the District of Columbia on how strong their local food systems are, and Vermont has once again come out on top.
The index uses census and U.S. Department of Agriculture data, along with a per capita comparison of farmers' markets, consumer supported agriculture operations (CSAs) and food hubs in ranking the states.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross said Vermont has become a national model for bringing together farmers, educators, hospital administrators, entrepreneurs and government to build a strong support system for growing, distributing and consuming local food.
"People are coming here from around the country to see how we are doing it," Ross said at the Farm to School Conference Thursday, which was held at SIT Graduate Institute. "Collaboration is foundational to our ability to build programs. This kind of community based support builds the kind of communities we want to live in."
Ross said one of the planet's most pressing challenges will be to find a way to feed the nine billion people who are expected to populate the earth by 2050.
Vermont's ability to connect teachers, students, farmers, food buyers, consumers, and administrators has created a sustainable and proven system that should be replicated across the globe to better meet that demand.
"I want to underscore this work and what it means to the future of this state, this country and the world," Ross said. "I think we can change the world from our little state."
The top five states for locavorism, according to the index, this year are Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Iowa, while the bottom five are Texas, which came in last, followed by Florida, Louisiana, Arizona and Nevada.
New Hampshire jumped up 10 places in this year's index, moving from 13th place last year to third in the 2013 index.
New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food Communications Director Maureen Duffy, said she has seen a growing interest from consumers who want to know where their food is coming from. That demand is bringing more dollars to the farms, she said, as farmers work to provide vegetables and fruit, along with meat and dairy, to satisfy that market.
Duffy also said the Agriculture Department is providing support by printing maps of farms, encouraging more farmers' markets and supporting entrepreneurs who want to grow the agriculture sector of the economy.
"There has been a real increase in the last few years with the local food movement," said Duffy. "There is a real demand out there and farmers are trying to meet it.
In the Strolling of the Heifers 2013 Locavore Index, Vermont outperformed the second state on the list, Maine, by more than two-to-one in its overall score per 100,000 residents. Vermont has 94 farmers' markets and 139 CSAs to serve its approximately 626,000 residents.
The state is also a leader in developing food hubs, which are facilities that handle the aggregation, distribution and marketing of foods from a group of farms and food producers. There are 12 food hubs in Vermont.
Food hubs are relatively new, and the index weighted the scoring with farmers' markets and CSAs each accounting for 45 percent of the states' ranking and food hubs making up the other 10 percent.
Strolling of the Heifers Executive Director Orly Munzing said the index was not done to point out the shortcomings in the states at the bottom of the list, but rather to encourage more collaboration between states and to get the lower performing states to talk about how they can better support their regional and local food systems.
"There are so many ways to do that," said Munzing. "Not just with farmers' markets and CSAs, but by supporting farm-to-school programs, urging local hospitals and nursing homes to purchase local foods, asking supermarkets to buy from local farms, and, of course, celebrating and honoring our farmers whenever we can."
Katherine Gillespie helped organize the Farm to School Conference Thursday and said the growth and support in the state has been coming from both outside and inside the system.
Parents are demanding more healthy and locally sourced meals, teachers want to know how they can bring more lessons into the classroom and state departments are getting on board.
Gillespie said the Agency of Agriculture, along with the Agency of Education, the Department of Health and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development all have a role to play in developing a strong local food system.
"We are able to look at the whole issue in a more systemic way, and it is easier to get funding to make sure the changes we are making will be for the long term," Gillespie said. "It means we can make connections. We are able to ramp up faster and the progress we make goes deeper and is sustainable."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.