Written by Bonnie North
Read more in Vermont's Local Banquet Winter 2014 issue.
“Eat Fresh! Eat Local!”
Back in 2008, teacher Hans Estrin’s ecology students at The Putney School heard that rallying cry and launched a well-intentioned project: Take the surplus from the 3-acre garden at the private and progressive Putney School and donate it for lunches at the public Putney Central Elementary School, just down the hill. “It was a great idea!” says Hans. “Our gardens had surplus, and the public school could certainly use some fresh produce.”
And it was a complete flop.
What seemed like such a simple thing to accomplish was more challenging in reality than anyone expected. Hans, (who is currently on extended leave from University of Vermont Extension teaching science in Kazakhstan) explains it this way: “The plan failed miserably, largely because there was no system to connect the food with the school.” Garden surplus appeared suddenly but often there would be no one around to load and truck it down the hill to Putney Central. And even when it did get delivered, frequently the food went to waste because the week’s menu at the public school was already planned and in preparation, and there were too few ready hands to do the extra processing that garden-fresh foods require.
Discouraged but not defeated, Hans held onto the idea. “I clearly saw what I had to do. I would rekindle the smoldering concept and devise a practical plan to deliver healthy produce from local farms to nearby school cafeterias. It made so much sense that there must be a way.”
Hans spent the next year pitching what he good-humoredly calls a “half-baked idea,” ferreting out willing partners from among the like-minded people he already knew—and some he soon got to know. Paul Harlow, owner of Westminster Organics and one of the largest and most successful certified organic growers in New England, took to the idea immediately. Andrea Darrow of Putney’s Green Mountain Orchards came aboard soon after. Jennifer Dusenbury, who oversaw food service at Putney Central School, was also enthusiastic. When the four of them met around Hans’s kitchen table in the summer of 2009, the pilot for Windham Farm and Food was created.
Within a few months, Hans was able to sell his half-baked idea to two more important players: Jamie Baribeau, director of food and nutrition at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, and John Ayer, the head of food service for Brattleboro Union High School. In the fall of 2009, Windham Farm and Food was officially launched as a “sub-company” within Harlow’s Westminster Organics. The plan at that point was elegantly simple: offer schools an online inventory and ordering system, weekly deliveries in one of Westminster Organics’ refrigerated trucks leased by the mile, and 30-days net invoicing.
And it worked.
Since its grassroots beginnings that first season, Windham Farm and Food has grown by more than 400 percent, now managing deliveries from more than 30 farms to more than 60 business clients, schools and nonprofit institutions in the Windham County region. Says Hans: “There are a lot of organizations in Windham County that want easy and affordable access to locally produced food. In 2012, sales were more than $140,000—and a full 85 cents of every dollar of goods sold by WFF goes straight back to the farmer.”
Read the rest of the article in Vermont's Local Banquet Winter 2014 issue.