ACORN Food Hub meets needs of farmers and food producers

ACORN Executive Director Lindsey Berk and Food Hub Manager Jess Purks start the year off with a great order of local produce that is bound for the Slate Valley School District. Photo courtesy of ACORN

In early January 2023, Lindsey Berk, ACORN’s Executive Director, and Jess Purks, its Food Hub Manager, loaded up over $2,000 of local food in a delivery van at the new ACORN Food Hub in Middlebury. This single order placed by a public school district on the ACORN Online Market included 700 pounds of potatoes, 200 pounds of sweet potatoes, 125 pounds of carrots, 100 pounds of onions, 70 pounds of cabbage, gallons of maple syrup, and a case of 30 honey bears. This order supported eight different local farms and provided food for about 1,200 students across the six schools in the district. Later that same day, orders placed on the ACORN market were delivered to CVOEO’s Feeding Chittenden program, The Bobcat Cafe and Brewery in Bristol, and numerous community members. 

Extending its mission to support agriculture in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, the ACORN Food Hub launched last September with a unique set of services tailored to meet the needs of farmers and food producers. Primarily, the Food Hub works to increase access to wholesale markets for small and mid-sized food producers. Through its Online Market, institutional, restaurant, retail and community member customers can streamline purchasing of diverse local products. The growing product list includes everything including maple, honey, dairy, beef, pork, fruit, fresh and frozen baked goods, specialty food products like tortillas and sauerkraut, and, of course, plenty of local vegetables. Packaging is often available in both retail and bulk sizes to appeal to a wide range of customer types. 

Since opening, more than 30 producers have sold products on the market and the customer list continues to grow. Small and mid-sized producers have faced challenges getting their goods in front of some of these buyers, especially the schools, due to their scale of production or limited capacity to build and maintain more customer relationships. The ACORN Food Hub works to aggregate products from different farms to fulfill the needs of larger buyers and consolidate the purchasing of diverse local products onto one invoice.

Offering Convenience and Efficiency

The local food community in Vermont is still feeling the wake of the pandemic: farms are understaffed, CSA memberships have declined, and margins have tightened for everyone. The pandemic demonstrated the fragility of the global food supply chain, emphasizing local foodsheds’ ability to promise greater food security. Farmers, like Jennifer and Spencer of Elmer Farm in East Middlebury, sense a greater desire among restaurants and institutions to source locally and they are excited to see food hubs help facilitate that. Labor continues to be a perennial challenge for all businesses post-pandemic, and it has made direct relationships between food producers and buyers more challenging to maintain. Producers are looking for more convenient ways to sell their products and wholesale customers desire easier ways to source local food. 

The ACORN Food Hub supports farms at any scale and stage to diversify their markets, and the hub provides access to a market niche that is challenging to get started with, especially as a new or small farm. Market diversification is recognized by most farmers as critical for financial stability. Stephen Chamberlain of Dutchess Farm in Castleton has been growing vegetables for 29 years. He knows local wholesale is good for his farm, but saw a dramatic decline in his wholesale markets during and post-pandemic. Through the ACORN Food Hub, he got access to new wholesale markets conveniently and efficiently and was able to circumvent the challenges of being located in a rural area with limited direct markets. For new farms with niche products, like Valley Clayplain Forest Farm in New Haven, the ACORN Online Market is a space to safely explore wholesale markets. Valley Clayplain farmer Mark Krawczyk said he enjoyed the services offered by the Food Hub including its “outreach and support to small folks like us, a great interface for the wholesale marketplace, and affordable storage options.” 

Elmer Farm employee Lucy delivers an order of root vegetables, squash and kale at the ACORN Food Hub in fall 2022.
Photo courtesy of ACORN

The convenience of the ACORN Online Market appeals to customers, too. Tatiana Dale, manager of Otter East Bakery in Middlebury and a customer on the Online Market, said she is thrilled that the “Food Hub is going to open so many doors for [the bakery] to source products locally.” She says restaurant managers are constantly on the floor and don’t have the time to get to know their local farms. The ACORN Food Hub makes it possible for the bakery to stay connected to its local food producers and source locally for the business. Erin Wheeler, chef and co-owner of The Bobcat Cafe and Brewery, has said, “This ACORN thing is something I’ve been dreaming about. It’s all in one place. I can look at the list and plan our menu based on what’s available. Payment happens automatically. It’s better than any food distributor we work with.” 

Thanks to a donation by a generous community member, the ACORN Food Hub now has the ability to increase distribution around the region. If you see our van making deliveries around town, be sure to say hi!

Although the ACORN Food Hub initially launched its Online Market to support institutions, groceries and restaurants, requests from community members to participate inspired opening up the market to more customer types. Community members have turned out to be the fastest growing segment of shoppers on the ACORN Online Market. As opportunities to purchase bulk local food have become less available, individuals and families have turned to the ACORN Online Market to source diverse local bulk foods for their families and community food pantries. One such customer recently told us they love that they can still support their favorite farms during the winter and can try new products that they wouldn’t get to know. She called picking up her ACORN order the highlight of the week for her family! 

Making Local Food More Accessible to All

Food producers naturally would like to see their products being enjoyed by a broader segment of the population. Matt Lasser, farmer at Reap & Sow Farm in Monkton, is just such an example. “I know many of us farmers wish we could charge less for our produce, but with the amount it costs to produce food, lower prices would be the end of many local farms,” Lasser said. “There is room to get more local produce into the hands of people who haven’t been able to afford what we grow.” Many farmers operate on margins that are too tight to reduce prices to make their products more affordable while keeping their farms viable. Some wholesale buyers are making these inroads into the general population for greater local food access.

Emmet Moseley, Food Access Coordinator of CVOEO Feeding Chittenden, purchases food on the ACORN Online Market for the Food Access Network Addison County food distribution program. He explains that “as food security advocates, [we] want to do the best for those who use our programs — getting the highest quality, freshest food is super important. Supporting local producers helps build food security on a community level; ensuring that our local producers are thriving means more access to high quality food for everyone.” He also appreciates that sourcing local food through the ACORN Food Hub is easier because there are no credit checks and order minimums, unlike other distributors. 

As a non-profit enterprise under ACORN, the ACORN Food Hub is able to return 84% of sales on the Online Market back to farmers and food producers, supporting the viability of food production in Vermont’s Champlain Valley. While ACORN’s work is largely focused on strengthening the local food economy and distribution network in central Vermont, it is also establishing collaborative relationships with the wider network of Food Hubs in the state. Through the Food Hub network, more local food can be distributed and enjoyed — fostering a more resilient food shed and robust agricultural economy in Vermont. 

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