'Taste of Southern Vermont' supports local food systems


BRATTLEBORO — Save the date.

Saturday's Second Annual Taste of Southern Vermont, described as a celebration of local food, brew and culinary talent, starts at 6 p.m. at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

"It serves as one of our major annual fundraisers for our non-profit organization," said Helen Rortvedt, Food Connects' farm to community program manager. "Our mission is to cultivate a healthy community and healthy connections between classrooms, cafeterias and communities. We fashion this event as a way to bring our mission to life while also generating some financial support for our organization and the work we do."

Tickets are available for $50 at eventbrite.com/e/2nd-annual-taste-of-southern-vermont-tickets-18535209310. Attendees can sample custom-made dishes created by 10 local chefs as they walk around taking in the museum's art exhibits. The meals will be paired with local products and desserts. Admission also comes with a drink ticket.

Taking part in this year's event will be chefs from Grafton Village Cheese Retail, Whetstone Station, Rigani Wood-fired Pizza, Duo Restaurant, The Gleanery, The Four Columns, Grace Cottage and The Williamsville Eatery. Also participating are students in Twin Valley's Jr. Iron Chef program and Kindle Farm School. Sweets will include Tavernier Chocolates and Chelsea Royal Madness Ice Cream. Coffee and teas are coming from Mocha Joe's while Windham Wines' cash bar will feature drinks from Hermit Thrush Brewery, Whetstone Station Brewery and Vermont Wines.

"It's a wonderful evening," Rortvedt said of the event aimed primarily at benefiting her group's Million Meals Campaign. "A major piece of our program is farm to school. We work with about 30 schools in Windham County. But we reach over into New Hampshire and Windsor County and also have statewide partnerships. We consult with organizations and schools in other parts of the state as well."

Approximately 7,000 students will be served about 1 million meals this year, said Rortvedt, whose group hopes to improve the quality of the food. They want to bring in fresher and more local foods.

Due to the importance of meals which provide kids with nutrition and energy, Rortvedt said efforts to make the meals better are already underway.

"But there's still a long way to go," she said, adding that Food Connects puts time into getting more state and federal funds for reimbursements for its programming. "The more revenue, the more we're able to spend on higher quality food and ingredients. That's a big part of what we do. That's been a focus of our work this year."

One in four children in Windham County are food insecure, according to Food Connects. And studies show food insecurity affects academic performance and behavior.

The organization also runs Windham Farm and Food, an aggregation and distribution food hub. In 2014-2015, over $200,000 of locally produced food from 50 buyers was reported to have gone to over 50 buyers within a 30-mile radius of Brattleboro.

Deliveries are made to local institutions. Acknowledging these places' limited budgets but their ability to serve people, Rorvedt said Food Connects saw a niche and a way to provide healthy meals.

"We saw a need to help schools and hospitals access food at a more affordable price. Also, it's kind of a one-stop shopping for busy food directors who don't have time to manage relationships with 30 farms. We're able to provide an online ordering system from a variety of farms," said Rortvedt, noting that a recent $40,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and another grant from the Fanny Holt Ames and Edna Louise Holt Fund assisted in expanding her group's deliveries.

The Holt Fund had given Food Connects money for its farm-to-school programs as part of a two-year grant. Now, the Holt Fund is allowing them to use some of the funding to purchase a new truck.

"Holt made up the difference from USDA on the cost of the truck," said Rortvedt. "It is on the road officially this week."

This was all in response to identifying one of the area's biggest needs, Rortvedt told the Reformer, referring to schools not having access to local food. She said Saturday's event is a way to "round out our programming."

"We operate with a significant amount of grant funds, corporate sponsorships and this is our main way to raise money. It's also a way to connect the community around food," she added. "We have a lot of local artists and businesses donating items for the silent auction."

Last year, approximately 200 people showed up. Tickets sold out and the building's occupancy capacity was reached. Food Connects is hoping to repeat that and they're recommending people purchase their tickets ahead of time. If tickets are still available on the day of the event, they will be sold at the door.

According to Rortvedt, Food Connects was "officially founded" in 2013 after approximately seven years of food system and food security programming was addressed by a group under Post Oil Solutions. The organization is now an established nonprofit with "a specific focus" on food systems and support.

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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