Carolyn Partridge: Digesting Farm to Plate report; putting a human face on addiction

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This week we had our annual Farm to Plate report. I am always amazed at how the folks involved with the initiative take on important challenges and break them down into bite-sized pieces that can be understood. This process allows for deep understanding and potential problem solving.

One of the original goals of the Farm to Plate Initiative was to double the consumption of Vermont produced food in 10 years. In fact, that goal was surpassed before the 10 years was up. One realization was that because Vermont is a relatively small state with a limited market, we would need to expand into regional markets like Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. if we wanted to be more successful. The Vermont name/brand has value and one that potentially brings a premium price, but the question was how do we take advantage of those regional markets?

There is great demand for more local products in supermarkets but getting into those supermarkets is a challenge. Making the leap from a local, direct sales/farmers market business into the wholesale market is daunting and with, as it happens, many hidden costs.

An example given in the Local Foods Wholesale Market Assessment (prepared for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and the Farm to Plate Network), is cherry tomatoes, which retail for $4.89 a pint in the grocery store. With a 35 percent margin on the suggested retail price (SRP), the price that the retailer pays is $3.18. With a 28 percent margin, the wholesale price is $2.29 to the distributor. There are a number of trade allowances including a 15 percent market allowance, a 1 percent shrink allowance, a 2 percent payment terms allowance, and a 15 percent transportation allowance that brings the net sale value to the farmer to $1.53, which is 31 percent of the SRP. And as if that wasn't bad enough, there are additional discretionary expenses and fees including market support services, which equals $400 per year per warehouse and a broker's fee of 5 percent of the net sale. So, after all that the net revenue to the farmer is $1.38 per pint of cherry tomatoes, which is 28 percent of the SRP.

This does not take into consideration the cost to the farmer to propagate, grow, and harvest the tomatoes. Labor costs keep going up in order to pay workers a living wage and much of the labor is done by H2A (temporary agricultural) workers who are also provided with housing. These are challenges that are being faced as farmers try to become more successful.

Now on a completely different topic, a recent confluence of events caused me to think about my niece, Megan. It was not an anniversary date or a family gathering, but a conversation and radio program that brought her to mind.

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At a recent special town meeting, I had a conversation with someone concerned about high property taxes. I explained that one of the drivers of our budget is pre-k special ed costs. The question was then, why? I cited the opioid problem, which is also causing more children to need mental health and foster care. This person responded by saying that this was a good reason to ban the use of Narcan — in other words, let people who overdose die.

A while ago, I was in the waiting room at my auto mechanic's garage and overheard a conversation between two women who were opining that people who get involved with drugs should just be allowed to die — they knew what they were getting into, they made their bed, etc. In this instance, I kept my mouth shut. It was not my conversation, I didn't know the women, and our paths would probably never cross again though I was sorely tempted to speak up.

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At our town meeting, I did respond by saying that it might be easy to hold that opinion, banning Narcan, if your life hadn't been touched by the problem.

Two days later, on Monday, Jan. 13, Vermont Edition ran a presentation by Kate O'Neill that was recorded at a Vermont Humanities Council event in Brattleboro. Kate, a writer for Seven Days, lost her sister, Madelyn Linsenmeir, to complications from opioid-use disorder. When the obituary she wrote for Madelyn went viral it brought attention to the realities of addiction and put a loving human face on it.

When I was young, we were taught that people who were drug addicts were bad, somehow defective. Alcoholism tended to be hushed up, it wasn't good, but what the heck, it was legal. At the time heroin was the worst thing that one could do.

After watching the film, "The Hungry Heart," by Bess O'Brien several years ago, thinking about innocent people getting addicted after surgery and young people like Madelyn getting hooked on oxycontin at the age of 16, and our own family's experience with Megan, I become outraged by the callous attitude expressed by some people.

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These drugs change the brain's chemistry quickly and gain a hold over people that is very, very hard to break. It might take years, and many tries at sobriety before success is achieved. And many don't make it. It is my belief that genetics are involved as well.

I needed to think about this scourge differently. It's a disease like any other that requires diligent care and medical attention to get well. We would not react to someone with Type 2 diabetes by saying that that patient might have made unhealthy choices that brought the illness on and therefore doesn't deserve the drugs they need to maintain life. Substance-use disorder should be treated like any other disease and treated accordingly.

My niece, Megan, did not make it. Her gateway drug was alcohol. After at least two times in rehab and seven or eight months sober, she drank alcohol at a family wedding and again at a July 4 party. Two weeks later, she died of a fentanyl overdose, breaking the hearts of the family who loved her deeply and had fought to save her. I dearly wish someone had been with her, administered Narcan, and saved her life.

To gain a deeper understanding of this dreadful disease I recommend that you listen to Kate O'Neill's presentation and read the series that she wrote about it. The presentation can be found at vpr.org/post/vermont-edition-presents-what-kate-oneill-learned-year-eulogizing-her-sister. Have a box of Kleenex handy.

State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham-3, welcomes emails at cpartridge@leg.state.vt.us. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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