Local food organization considers creating a facility to process crops and meats

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) is beginning a new chapter in its 12-year history of promoting sustainable, local sources of food and energy. The non-profit, grassroots organization has hired a new executive director who is leading an effort to create a new facility where small Addison County food producers could process and store their wares.
ACORN leaders last week formally announced Lynn Coale as the group’s new executive director.
Coale, who last spring retired as superintendent of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, will work around 20 hours a week coordinating a panoply of ACORN programs that include the immensely popular “Tour de Farms” bicycle trek that showcases area agricultural operations and their products, and the Stone Soup Summit at which folks gather to promote Vermont’s ongoing efforts to get locally grown produce and meats into Addison County school kitchens.
The organization also publishes an annual “Addison County Guide to Local Food and Farms” in collaboration with the Addison Independent. ACORN holds periodic conventions on food-energy sustainability, and in 2008 spun off a separate business called the ACORN Renewable Energy Co-op to help transition area communities from their dependence on fossil fuels to a greater reliance on affordable, renewable energy strategies.
Coale is no stranger to ACORN, having been a board member for the past three years. And his relationship with ACORN dates back 10 years, during which Coale and his career center students took on some projects relating to agriculture and the local economy. For example, the career center established a mobile poultry processing facility.
When longtime ACORN co-founder and Executive Director Jonathan Corcoran decided to shed his title (but still remain leader of the board), Coale seemed like a logical choice to replace him.
“Jon and I have had conversations about this during the past year,” Coale said of the post, which he was happy to accept.
So Coale’s retirement will be short-lived, but that’s OK with him.
“I think this will be a really good fit for me,” Coale said.
He has already been hard at work on what would become ACORN’s first major capital project: An “Addison County Food Commons.” For around nine months now, Coale and Middlebury College student Charlie Mitchell have been studying the feasibility of such a project, which would provide a commercial kitchen, dry and cold storage, and other services for small local food producers that currently can’t afford such amenities.
ACORN officials reasoned an Addison County Food Commons would allow area food producers to remain active throughout the year, as opposed to seasonally. The ability to better preserve local foods would help stabilize the market and reduce the amount of local produce that is currently discarded or left unharvested because it can’t be preserved.
“A big piece of ACORN is food security,” Coale said. “We’re throwing away 40 percent of what we’re growing, and we’re in a county where some people are going hungry. We want to close that gap, but we need the county’s help to do that.”
Coale and Mitchell have been canvassing the county for buildings that could host the new food commons. They kicked the tires on the former Greg’s Meat Market property in Middlebury. It was a little larger that what ACORN was looking for, and Middlebury businessman Tony Neri ultimately bought the Elm Street property to re-establish it as a grocery store.
Undaunted, ACORN officials have identified a few other building prospects that could fit the bill. Coale declined to reveal those prospects. But, he said, ideally the food commons would be located in or near one of the county’s three largest communities (Middlebury, Vergennes or Bristol) in a structure of around 2,500 square feet, with growth potential. It would be owner-run, with multiple small businesses operating under one roof, according to Coale.
Corcoran believes saving and consuming local food is going to be key if the state is to achieve its Farm-to-Plate goal of having local food make up at least 20 percent of what its population consumes by the year 2020.
Five years ago, ACORN launched a “local food index” to keep a representative tally of how much local food is consumed in Addison County. Those contributing statistics to the local food index include Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, and the Addison Northeast School District.
“We’ve found all our (food index) participants are in the 14 to 20 percent mark,” Corcoran said. Contributing to that nice, local consumption percentage are Addison County staples like apples, milk, fresh produce, honey, maple syrup and meat.
“The local food opportunities are real, and they are growing,” Corcoran said.
Once ACORN has settled on a food commons location, it will apply for grants and donations to acquire and renovate the facility.
ACORN at this point is cash-poor, with an annual budget of $40,000 to $50,000. But it is rich in volunteers, supporters and ideas. The organization reaches around 2,500 Addison County residents through its programs and its newsletter, “Cultivating Connections.” Its area partners include Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center, local food producers, Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, all three county-based school districts and the Addison County Economic Development Corp., with which ACORN collaborated to create the annual “Financing the Working Landscape Conference.”
“The business community has probably been our biggest supporter,” Corcoran said, specifically citing the National Bank of Middlebury, Cooperative Insurance and Yankee Farm Credit.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of the local community,” he said.
Anyone wanting to learn more about ACORN and how to contribute to its mission should log on to acornvt.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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