Group plots food system revamp

ADDISON COUNTY — In today’s international food system, a consumer can get a pound of bananas grown in the tropics at any grocery store for under a dollar. But a local potato? That’s something the average consumer has to do a little work to find.
To the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN), however, change is imminent.
The group last month released its “2010 Strategic Plan for the Addison County Local Foods Collaborative,” which lays out a plan to push the Addison County food economy even further — from just a 5 percent share of the overall food market to a 15 percent share over the next 10 years.
Monkton resident Jonathan Corcoran, ACORN president and author of the report, said that compared to other areas of the state, Addison County has a head start.
“What’s unique to Addison County is that we are the largest consumer of local foods sold direct to consumer, by a large factor,” he said.
And indeed, Addison County is already further along on its regional sales structures, both in dollar amounts and per capita, than any other Vermont county, with $5,434,000 in direct sales to the consumer in 2007, according to USDA figures. Chittenden County tailed those numbers by almost half, with $2,915,000 going directly from the consumer to the producer.
The plan lays out goals to boost local food consumption in Addison County, ranging from increasing the prevalence of home gardens to developing processing and storage operations that county farmers can use.
The plan’s release pairs with the recent release of a report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s November report, which predicts an increase of between 10 and 20 percent in global food prices over the coming year.
And even though local produce tends to be more expensive than food grown on larger farms that distribute around the globe, Corcoran said that with industrial food systems rapidly depleting resources necessary for agriculture, he foresees a time when the prices will be closer to parity. During the 2008 peak in gas prices, he said the county saw local food prices match up with that of imported products.
And unlike the commodity farming systems, he added, “local food is not subsidized. Every dollar gets reinvested here.”
“The high-input, high-capital, high-energy food systems that we’ve developed in past years are not the model of agriculture going forward,” he said. “It’s only common sense that we learn to feed ourselves again.”
ACORN is already pursuing the three main projects that the plan lays out.
The first is a program called the ACORN Wholesale Cooperative, or the AWC. Corcoran said the plan for the cooperative springs from a survey of institutional buyers — like Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center and school foodservice companies — and county growers that targeted the problems of connecting the two groups.
Coordination emerged as the main issue, leading to the stated goal of the AWC: “creating and coordinating a low-cost, direct order/delivery service from growers to institutional … accounts in Addison County.”
“AWC’s role is to be a broker, to create the relationship,” explained Corcoran. “Getting growers to understand buyers’ needs and vice versa is difficult.”
Corcoran said that in cooperation with Shoreham’s Vermont Refrigerated Storage, which is looking to expand its operations and potentially expand into food processing as well, the AWC may be able to establish an aggregation, storage and distribution in the next few years.
Increased local food distribution plays into the plan’s second project, the Farm-to-School initiative. As county schools increase their local food programs, incorporating agriculture into curriculums and regional produce into their meals, Corcoran said there’s a pressing need for coordination and cooperation between schools in order to sustain this component of education.
“It’s important to the community,” he said. “But it doesn’t live anywhere. It’s not part of somebody’s budget.”
The project is already well under way — following last spring’s Stone Soup summit at Mount Abraham Union High School, the momentum has been building for schools to develop their local foods systems.
As of this fall, Hannah Mueller, an AmeriCorps volunteer with ACORN and the Willowell Foundation, serves as a part-time Farm-to-School coordinator for the county. Mueller is currently working with area schools to increase communication between the many area schools doing work with local food education and meal programs.
The third project that the plan sets forward is the creation of a local food index that will allow the group to measure progress in the coming years. The index would establish a clear definition of “local” — whether it be county-based, regional, or all of Vermont plus 30 miles on all sides — and combine sales data from stores like the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, Mountain Greens in Bristol, Greg’s Meat Market, and he Hannaford and Shaw’s supermarkets with sales data from institutional buyers like school foodservices, Middlebury College and Porter Medical Center.
Building up a local food infrastructure isn’t cheap, though. The ACORN plan puts forth the idea of “slow money” as a way to finance the changes. Slow money is a long-term investment system that is funded by residents of an area like Addison County or Vermont. The money is distributed for projects that will bolster an area’s economic development in the form of low-interest loans that the borrowers pay back over time.
Chris Bray, an outgoing state representative from New Haven, is currently working on a statewide “slow money” plan, which he hopes will help Addison County residents reinvest in their local food systems.
One difficulty in farming and building up an agricultural infrastructure is a lack of capital for improvement, said Bray.
“The world of agriculture is a challenging place to make money, but there is good money to be made,” he explained.
And, if his plan takes hold, he hopes the system will offer the funding to allow that money to flow.
Bray added that the ACORN food plan has similar goals to the statewide Farm-to-Table plan that will be presented to the Legislature on Jan. 15 — to bolster regional agriculture, he said, and to play into preserving Vermont’s agricultural identity.
He said he hopes that the county- and state-wide local foods efforts will combine to show other places that local food systems are possible.
“It’s a small state, a living laboratory,” he said. “What we do here often travels to other places.”
But first and foremost, he said, the plan will work to preserve Vermont as we know it.
“This is a crucial thing that we do for ourselves,” he said. “We risk losing our working landscape. Once it’s lost, we will not recover it.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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