Food Connects of Brattleboro, VT delivers locally produced food as well as educational and consulting services aimed at transforming local food systems. Its food hub aggregates and delivers from over 70 local farms and food producers to over 130 buyers in southeast Vermont, southwest New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts. With solid leadership from Executive Director, Richard Berkfield, Food Connects’ food hub has grown significantly for two years in a row, over 30% in 2018 and 41% for a total of over $560k in sales for 2019. They aspire to continue growing those sales and become more independent of grant funding over the next five years.
In the fall of 2019, Food Connects consolidated their offices, storage and distribution facilities at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation Business Park, just off Exit 3 on I-91. Food Connects recently installed a 1,000 square foot cooler and freezer, giving them three times more storage capacity. This means they can increase the number of producers they serve and products they offer. It also allows operational efficiencies because loading docks, offices, and storage space are all under one roof—increasing ease of access for drop-offs and pick-ups. With this enhanced capacity, they aim to serve more producers in other regions of Vermont, like the Northeast Kingdom and Upper Valley.
Vermont’s rural economy relies on a healthy agricultural sector. Farming forms the basis of many of our rural counties and it’s a major part of our state’s identity, our culture, and the backdrop tourists value when they visit.
But, the portion of the food dollar that gets back to farmers is being squeezed, in part because consumers want to pay less for food, but also because the hurdles between the farm and our dinner plates pose a major hurdle to farms of a modest scale, which is to say, most farms in Vermont.
High Meadows promotes both vibrant communities and healthy natural ecosystems in Vermont, with an eye towards long term economic vitality. One of our main areas of focus is to grow sustainable farm, food, and forest based enterprises. Our Farm to Market Initiative is focused in particular on increasing the sale of Vermont farm and food products through wholesale and institutional markets that recognize, and are willing to pay for, the value of fresh, healthy local food.
Wholesale markets have their challenges – there’s nothing easy or straight-forward about building and serving these markets. But, there are key factors at work that the folks at Food Connects understand and are hyper-focused on:
- One is to focus on the right markets. That requires research, and it requires staying in touch with their buyers. Food Connects values independent co-ops and grocers, listens to what they’re looking for, responds when they can to price shifts, and regularly offers new products. And they recognize that health care institutions value healthy local foods. When you have lunch at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital or Grace Cottage, you see that healthy food is part of high quality health care.
- Another is to value farmers and producers and to maintain the identity of the producer through the entire trip food makes from farm to plate. Consumers are understandably confused by labels and promotional cues like natural, organic, real organic, and local. When Food Connects identifies the farm or the producer by name, sometimes with an accompanying story on their website or promotional material, it allows an eater to recognize and appreciate and to feel a connection to how the food was produced.
- Besides maintaining that “source ID”, Farm Connects focuses on the needs of the producer, avoiding the common practices of charge-backs and fees that shift more market risks back to the farmer.
- Food Connects is a collaborator and an innovator. Richard’s team participates in Vermont’s Farm to Plate network and in regional food hub networks. In the past year or so he has been a key part of the Food Hub Collaborative led by Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. By sharing in research, studying the distribution assets of participating for-profit and nonprofit food hubs, and exploring ideas for shared marketing, the food hubs can find new opportunities for marketing and distribution.
- And, finally, Food Connects is focused on being efficient. Richard has gone through the ropes of a couple of boot camps and accelerator programs, through Windham Grows and the Fair Food Fund. Richard is cutting the ribbon on a new storage and cooling facility that will improve their level of control over the distribution process and make their routes more efficient. This facility will also further develop collaboration with more northern food hubs, so more Vermont food and farm products could travel through this facility on their way to markets down I-91 or across New England.
While refining their approach to select wholesale and institutional markets, Food Connects also runs a Farm to School program. It ensures fresh local food reaches consumers across all income brackets and provides education and outreach about the value of fresh local food and how to use it to create delicious and nutritious meals. Schools are a tough market to serve because they are small and budget constrained. But, as Food Connects continues to expand its wholesale markets, they feather schools into their distribution routes. In this way, Food Connects is able to reach the young Vermont eaters who will be tomorrow’s consumers, all while maintaining the farmer’s fair share of the dollar.
I’m not suggesting Food Connects or other nonprofit food hubs hold the solution to all the challenges of Vermont’s agricultural sector. There is no one solution. But one piece of the puzzle of answers is to connect Vermont producers to customers in the northeast who value food that is produced locally, where they can learn the story of the farms behind the products, and feel confident that the food was produced in a sustainable way.
Food Connects matters because they are focused on buyers who value high quality food. Food Connects matters because they make sure a greater share of the consumer’s food dollar can get back to the farmer. And Food Connects matters because if they demonstrate this approach can work as a business enterprise, they nudge the rest of the food distribution system to better serve farmers and producers as a key element of the food system.