Written by Marcella Houghton
Pick a food – and you are likely to find a Vermont-made version. From coffee to peanut butter, from to bread to beer, the abundance of edible goods with the Vermont brand is just one measure of how we value our state’s food system. But one place we’re losing valuable resources—or in other words, where there is great potential to strengthen the food system we take such pride in—is in managing the raw, fresh produce grown right here in our communities.
An estimated 14.3 million pounds of food is lost on Vermont farms every year, according to Salvation Farms’ study released earlier this year. In visual terms, that’s roughly 7,000 pickup trucks—a 26-mile bumper-to-bumper stretch—filled to the brim with good food. Food loss refers to perfectly edible produce that goes unsold and uneaten. Blemishes on crops, changes in demand, and fluctuations in labor can all result in a decision to leave food behind in the fields or the pack-house. Some food loss on farms is inevitable, but Salvation Farms’ believes this volume represents an unnecessary loss, and their work to help manage what farms cannot sell is at the heart of their mission to build increased resilience in Vermont’s food system.
The new findings on food loss demonstrate the urgency for responsive systems to manage that food, especially after harvest. Salvation Farms efforts as a member and founder of the Vermont Gleaning Collective to advance the practice of gleaning (gathering unsold food from farms) represent only one aspect of managing surplus—the next involving the logistics of moving food to meal sites effectively. Surplus currently rescued in Vermont represents only 5% of the potential. If Vermont is going to adequately absorb and move crops into the food system, the state will require advanced systems to ensure that the produce being distributed is handled properly, quality-assessed, and distributed in a manner that sites can handle and that eaters want.
Building on lessons learned from six diverse pilots, including three years at the Southeast State Correction Facility and two at the Vermont Food Venture Center, Salvation Farms has refined a clearinghouse model – the Vermont Commodity Program – to address the logistical challenge of moving large amounts of surplus crops.
In fall 2016, Salvation Farms launched the Vermont Commodity Program in downtown Winooski, Vermont, scaling up programs to make a big impact on food loss. Operations began at the new facility in early September 2016 with a crew of eight workforce development trainees.
Workforce development is at the core of the Vermont Commodity Program. Making sure the state is prepared to manage its surplus means developing a skilled workforce trained in the logistics of getting quality food to the places and people that need it most. The training program pairs post-harvest handling experience with job training, including transferable industry-recognized certifications, food systems awareness, and general job-readiness skills.
Over the course of the first 16-week cycle, Salvation Farms predicts moving 100,000 pounds of apples, winter squash, and assorted roots—crops that might otherwise go uneaten. These fruits and vegetables will arrive in unwieldly bulk containers and leave in quality-assessed packaging for ease of distribution and consumption for nutritionally-insecure individuals and families.
Through the Vermont Commodity Program, Salvation Farms aims to increase the availability and use of locally grown food—the demand for which has been demonstrated through projects like the 2012 survey of Vermont institutions from the Northeast Organic Farming Association. The work aligns with Vermont Farm to Plate Strategic Plan goals to increase overall consumption of locally grown food and consumption at Vermont institutions. By aiming to make fresh, locally-grown food available in greater quantities that are easy to use in both home kitchens and at institutional meal sites, the new program more broadly advances the Farm to Plate goal to improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters.
The Vermont Commodity Program’s workforce development curriculum also supports the Farm to Plate goal to build a skilled, reliable workforce for Vermont’s food system establishments. “We see the development of this program and its connection to new partnerships as an important component to promoting the viability of Vermont farms and job creation in the agricultural sector,” Abbey Willard, Food Systems Section Chief for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets, stated at the program’s launch. The Vermont Commodity Program thus advances Farm to Plate goals to increase farm and food sector jobs and improve farm profitability.
Salvation Farms’ mission is to increase resilience in Vermont’s food system through agricultural surplus management. Our programs are driven by three primary goals: reduce food waste on farms, increase use of locally grown foods, and foster an appreciation for Vermont’s agricultural heritage and future.