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HOPE planting seeds for fall harvest of free food

MIDDLEBURY — Officials at the social services agency Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, or HOPE, this spring are quietly planting the organizational seeds for what they hope will be a massive fall harvest of healthy produce for Addison County’s low-income residents.
Based in Middlebury, HOPE offers food, clothing, shelter and other emergency assistance to area residents of modest means. The nonprofit operates a sizable food shelf at its Boardman Street headquarters, which benefits from donations, community food drives and low-cost purchases from places like the Vermont Food Bank.
But HOPE is increasingly looking to Mother Earth and the county’s many generous farms for fresh grown vegetables. Thanks to funding through the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, HOPE has been able to hire a part-time local food access coordinator, Lily Bradburn.
At this point, Bradburn is networking with several area farms to line up gleaning opportunities this summer and fall. She is also contracting with farms to purchase specific varieties of vegetables to stock the food shelf and make wholesome soups available to clients in quart-sized containers.
Bradburn is now recruiting and training groups of community volunteers who, with farmers’ permission, will pick and/or sort through vegetables destined for HOPE clients.
It’s a major effort that is expected to supplant some of the traditional, processed food-shelf material with more healthy, locally sourced veggies, noted HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross. She credited former state representative and current Golden Russet Farm co-owner Will Stevens of Shoreham for spearheading the annual gleaning effort around four years ago.
HOPE last year forged alliances with 17 Addison County farms, which agreed to provide surplus vegetables for free or dedicate a fraction of their harvest to the food shelf at bargain prices. All told, the farms generated a combined total of 10,900 pounds of crops last year for HOPE, according to Montross. And that was a year when many farms didn’t have a lot of surplus veggies, Bradburn stressed.
Those crops — including carrots, potatoes, spinach, beets, beans, tomatoes and corn — are quickly cleaned and processed for immediate consumption or blanched for a trip to the freezer so they can continue to benefit clients throughout the winter and into the spring.
Bradburn is spending a lot of time right now making soups with some of last fall’s harvest, mixed with various proteins — such as chicken and some of the 400 pounds of recently donated sausage. She and her helpers have made around 88 gallons of soup so far this year.
“Lily is strengthening our partnerships with the farmers, targeting crops that can be frozen during the winter,” Montross said.
Bradburn is currently networking with a half-dozen area farms to line up a harvest for this fall. Golden Russet, the Elmer Farm and the Lester Farm are just a few examples of farms working with HOPE this year.
“We’re capturing surplus produce, but at the same time, we want to create a more sustainable and reciprocal relationship with the farms,” Bradburn said.
Farms with which HOPE contracts are able to offer prices that vary based on whether the farm has to pick, clean and package the produce for the organization. The price goes down if HOPE performs some of the harvesting and packaging chores itself, Bradburn said.
This year, Bradburn is starting out with a $1,000 budget for contracted vegetables. It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it can stretch a long way, Montross said.
The organization also enjoys a close relationship with the Patricia Hannaford Career Center (PHCC). The center has use of mobile flash-freezing equipment that allows the HOPE vegetables to be frozen in a fraction of the time it would take to do so in a conventional unit.
“It cools the new soup fast so you can store it more quickly,” Bradburn said.
And PHCC has also agreed to raise and process 150 to 200 chickens and 25 to 30 turkeys for HOPE this year, according to center Director Lynn Coale.
HOPE recruited about 20 volunteers to pick and process vegetables last year. Some were Middlebury College students, others were from area religious organizations, and some were community-minded folks with green thumbs, Bradburn said.
One of the most dedicated HOPE helpers has been Middlebury Selectwoman Laura Asermily. She provided critical support during a period prior to Bradburn coming on board.
“I’d been involved in processing local apples for HOPE with my faith community,” Asermily said. “In preparing to do this again, I learned that HOPE didn’t have a gleaner and needed some help collecting food from local farms during the peak harvest season while they searched for a replacement. I agreed to collect produce from Elmer Farm which included tons of healthy organic carrots with imperfections that would make them hard to sell at market but so appreciated by HOPE. I thought about all the hard work that went into growing and harvesting that food by Elmer Farm and how generous they were to offer it to HOPE. It was important to pitch in to make sure that all this hard work didn’t go to waste, so I also helped HOPE organize volunteers to process apples and carrots for freezing at the Career Center until Lily could manage it.”
Right now, farmers are planting crops. HOPE and its volunteers will allow Mother Nature to do its thing during the next few months.
“The job gets most labor-intensive in late August through November,” Bradburn said. “Now it’s mostly making soup, a lot of administrative prep, and trying to get out to a lot of different events and looking for volunteers.”
A lot is riding on the gleaning effort. The HOPE food shelf serves 500 to 600 people each month, according to Montross. She noted HOPE last year surveyed its food shelf clients, and a good majority indicated they prefer fresh and frozen vegetables to those stored in a can.
Anyone interested in the HOPE gleaning program, or who would like to volunteer in the effort, may call HOPE at 388-3608.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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