Grants Help Food Access and Farming Organizations Form Upper Valley-wide Network
Imagine all Upper Valley residents having access to fresh, locally grown food — even with the uncertainty of climate change — through a network of community organizations connecting food growers and eaters: that’s the vision of “Food System Resilience from the Ground Up,” a new project involving Vital Communities and a host of regional organizations dedicated to food access and regional farm viability.
Funded by $250,000 in grant support primarily from the US Department of Agriculture, the project is a two-year effort to increase community food security by creating a network of “local hubs” sharing ideas, resources, and expertise to help local farms thrive, get food to those who need it, and respond to the challenges of climate change. While the importance of a local food supply has long been recognized, this need was underscored by the pandemic supply-chain disruptions that led to local food shortages – and the strong likelihood that climate change will bring more of the same.
“These groups’ dedication to strengthening local food systems has been particularly impressive, and they can achieve greater impact—more sustainably, equitably, and efficiently—as part of a network that provides operational capacity, financial resources, access to new relationships, and understanding of shared goals,” said Erica Hiller, the Vital Communities staffer managing this project. “As a co-created ‘collective impact network’ that elevates the expertise and needs of community-based food system groups and agricultural producers, the UVRN offers a realistic and sustainable approach to tackling a complex challenge: food system resilience in the Upper Valley.”
To create this network, Vital Communities is working with a number of local food action hubs: grassroots organizations based in specific locales throughout the Upper Valley working on food access and food security resilience. These community-led groups range from well-established to newly emerging; address food growing, access, and distribution in their regions; and include farmers, community gardens, nonprofits, governments, and more.
The project partners also include technical assistance providers with experience in food access and farmland viability. These partners include The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law and Graduate School; the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission; and Grow More, Waste Less, LLC, which promotes projects and education about soil, food, compost, and whole food and waste systems.
Vital Communities, a nonprofit organization with nearly 30 years of experience working with food system actors in the region, will serve as the backbone of the project to support the work of the grassroots groups. The project will use “collective impact,” an organizational method that helps decision-making come from the grassroots up so decisions are informed by the needs and realities of the communities they affect.
The Benefits of Food System Networks
Access to wholesome food was an issue in the Upper Valley before the pandemic, with 40% of households living on less than $50,000 annually. The onset of the COVID19 pandemic worsened economic situations and food access.
According to 2017 figures, there are 2,058 farm operations in the four Upper Valley counties, but these farms face unfavorable market forces as well as stresses caused by the extreme and more variable weather brought by climate change.
Cross-state partnerships and networks are critical to regional planning and collaboration for supporting farms and getting food to those who need it. However, the region’s bistate nature can be a significant challenge to regional efforts, with the two states having differing priorities, funding levels, and regulations, etc. The regional and rural nature of the area has spawned a patchwork food system with varying degrees of support and resources.
How the Network Will Operate
The project envisions that, in two years, each hub will have a strategic plan of action appropriate for its unique circumstances and complementary with those of the other hubs; and the hubs will have built the relationships and gained technical skills necessary to carry out their plans.
In addition to $198,000 grant from USDA Regional Food System Partnership program, the project is funded by the Cotyledon Foundation and the Harris and Frances Block Foundation. The majority of the $250,000 will go directly to the hubs themselves, to enable each to strengthen its operations according to its needs. Each hub is made up of a unique combination of players involved in food growing and distribution, including producers, community gardens, nonprofits, governments, and more.
For example, FEED (Food, Expansion, Education, and Distribution) Kearsarge was formed at the beginning of the pandemic and comprises the Kearsarge Food Hub (KFH), Kearsarge Neighborhood Partners, Colby-Sawyer College, Spring Ledge Farm, New London Hospital, Farmsteads of New England, Main Street Warner, and regional food pantries. In 2021, KFH sourced from about 160 regional vendors, served 3,000+ customers, donated $45,000 worth of food, designed and launched a farmer apprenticeship program, and piloted an Abenaki food security and seed-saving initiative in partnership with the Abenaki Trails Project. This partnership grant would provide timely support as FEED Kearsarge enters this phase of planning and development.
Who are the Partners?
As the Food Resilience project develops, more community-led initiatives are expected to be included. The groups currently involved in the project are, in addition to FEED Kearsarge:
Claremont Growers Collective, created in 2022 and consisting of food access and security advocates, producers, and entrepreneurs (https://www.claremontgrowers.org/);
4-Town Coalition (4TC), formed in 2019 and representing the towns of Royalton, Sharon, Strafford, and Tunbridge, VT, which includes outreach programming to benefit both community members, especially those of low and moderate income, and area farmers (https://www.4-towncoalition.org/);
Sustainable Woodstock, founded in 2009, serving the Woodstock area in many areas of environmental, social, and economic responsibility and sustainability (https://www.sustainablewoodstock.org/);
Bradford Food & Forest, a community group focused on advancing agriculture and food system advances in the Bradford, VT, area;
Feeding the Valley Alliance, formed in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges in accessing food, for the Central Vermont communities of Rochester, Hancock, and Granville;
Mt. Ascutney Food Security Workgroup, run by the Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center and the Windsor Community Food Shelf; and
A community collaboration including Moon and Stars working to create a hub in South Royalton focused on food sovereignty and equity. Moon and Stars is a South Royalton-based organization that connects community, traditional food, and regenerative farming through heirloom corn and the process of making arepas, a corn-based staple dish of Colombia and Venezuela (https://www.moonandstarsvt.org/).
A new Hartford hub that is a collaboration of volunteers and organizations that have worked on a range of projects across the town’s villages, including the creation and maintenance of some community gardens and food forests where they have planted fruit and nut trees that are free for the community.
In addition to those named above, the project partners who will provide technical assistance and support to the local initiatives are:
Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation, fostering economic vitality and prosperity in Vermont’s Upper Connecticut River and White River Valley regions (https://www.gmedc.com/);
Sullivan County Conservation District, which focuses on water quality, soil-erosion reduction, and other aspects of human and environmental health (http://www.sullcon.com/); and
Colby-Sawyer College Environmental Studies Department, bringing expertise around sustainable farming, food system resilience, and long-term planning (https://colby-sawyer.edu/environmental-studies).
Vital Communities staff involved in the project are Erica Hiller, Project Manager, Climate, Agriculture, Energy, Economy; Cameron Huftalen, Project Manager, Upper Valley Everyone Eats; and Nancy LaRowe, Director, Food & Farm and Economy.
About the Grant Program
Food System Resilience from the Ground Up is one of 36 partnerships across 24 states that were awarded a total of $19 million under the USDA’s Regional Food System Partnerships (RFSP) grant program. With a goal of expanding and strengthening local and regional food systems and increasing the availability of locally grown agricultural products, RFSP funds partnerships that connect public and private resources in planning and developing local or regional food systems. RFSP also supports partnerships in developing relationships between local and regional producers, processors, and intermediaries, and institutions, such as schools, hospitals, governments to increase local and regional foods in institutional cafeterias and meal programs.
Vital Communities’ Work in Upper Valley Farming and Food Access
Vital Communities works with a roster of partners on numerous projects to support our region’s farmers and get food to the people who need it. These projects include business and technical assistance to farmers and food producers, the White River Valley Consortium, the White River Land Collaborative, crowdfunding for farming and food access projects, Upper Valley Everyone Eats, Climate Farmer Stories, and the Vital Guide to local farms and businesses.
In addition, Vital Communities also manages and supports networks, partnerships, and projects in climate and energy, local economic vitality, housing and transportation, civic leadership, and place-based learning.