Local food groups merge

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BRATTLEBORO >> Two organizations that have been working to strengthen the local food system have merged to form a single group dedicated to supporting farms and helping to bring more local produce into the schools, institutions and communities throughout Windham County.

Windham Farm and Food, which was started in 2009 to make it easier for schools to order local produce, will now be operated as a program of Food Connects.

Food Connects grew out of work done by Post Oil Solutions to establish a more stable and consistent Farm-to-School program, as well as to develop programming for institutions and communities to more easily access locally sourced produce and food products.

Windham Farm and Food was established to create an infrastructure consisting of an easy online ordering system, as well as staff, trucks and storage to deliver produce and food products to schools, institutions and Community Supported Agriculture programs.

The program was started as a pilot by Hans Estrin, who worked with Harlow Farms to set up the low cost delivery system. University of Vermont Extension provided support in 2010, and Post Oil Solutions helped out in 2012.

In 2013 Windham Farm and Food started the growing season as its own mission driven LLC.

Food Connects Farm to Community Program Manager Helen Rortvedt said Windham Farm to Food started as a mission-driven organization, and while it was never started to make money, it has been hard to keep the program afloat. Over the past few years the business grew, but so did the costs.

As a program run under the umbrella of Food Connects, a non-profit organization, Rortvedt said, Windham Farm and Food can apply for grants and share resources and administrative costs with Food Connects.

"We've always had a clear and natural relationship," Rortvedt said. "We both work to connect farms to schools and as time wore on it became clear that it made sense to merge. I think it makes sense for both groups."

Food Connects has been supporting the Windham Farm to School program since 2011, and sales have grown from about $75,000 in 2011 to more than $213,000 in 2014.

"This merger allows us to scale up and to better align our efforts with big picture initiatives in Vermont," said Food Connects co-founder and Executive Director Richard Berkfield.

The food ordering and delivery system will now be managed as a social enterprise program, and it will be better aligned with the Farm-to-School program that Food Connects runs to improve food, farm and nutrition education

Food Connects helps set up buying clubs at housing developments and neighborhoods and also shares curriculum with area schools to make it easier to promote local agriculture in the classroom.

In 2014 Windham Farm and Food helped connect 28 farms and food producers with 55 buyers throughout the region, through a twice-a-week delivery system.

John Ayer, Food Service Director at Brattleboro Union High School, now purchases about half of the produce he serves at the high school from farms within a 30 mile radius.

"The Windham Farm Food Network allows producers and buyers to connect with each other in an efficient and mutually beneficial way," Ayer said. "I would not be able to purchase from so many local farms without the convenience and low prices."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be contacted at 802-254-2311 ext 279.


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