All Vermont residents should have access to nutritious local foods they can afford, and Vermont farms should all be profitable. However, many people in our state struggle with the rising cost of living, high housing and utility costs, transportation barriers, health issues, and underemployment, all of which can make it challenging to afford food. Today, 74,520 Vermonters are food insecure, including 18,760 children. To build a robust and equitable food system, we must address both food access and farm viability simultaneously. For the health and wellbeing of all eaters, food access cannot be addressed by the charitable food system alone but rather must be considered in relation to all the major market channels: retail, direct markets, and institutions. By increasing the ability of all eaters to access and use local food, we also benefit our farm businesses and the entire Vermont economy.
Although Vermont’s local food economy grew from $7.5 billion in 2007 to $11.3 billion in 2017, access to Vermont-grown foods by all residents continues to remain inequitable. Programs which increase accessibility to locally produced foods for low-income and at-risk populations have grown and diversified in an attempt to address this inequity. At the same time, efforts to improve Vermont farm viability through expanding markets for locally produced foods have often focused on value-added, specialty, and export markets which do not inherently increase access within local communities where Vermont residents shop.
Vermont residents shop for and obtain food through a wide variety of outlets, or “market channels,” with the majority of food purchased at supermarkets. Some Vermont communities may have multiple food outlets, others are “food deserts” without sufficient access to fresh, nutritious foods within a reasonable distance.1 Some Vermonters rely on meals provided by state, municipal, or nonprofit institutions like schools, prisons, and hospitals. Food from any outlet may be supplemented by additional food received from charitable programs, including food shelves and free meal sites. Most market channels are limited in their ability to secure locally produced foods due to a variety of reasons, the most predominant including price points, ease of ordering, availability, and transportation logistics. Additional barriers exist within the operational mindset of some of these outlets, including a reluctance to adapt to different size packaging, varying appearance, consistency, and flavor, and/or a set of priorities that don’t include sourcing locally grown and produced food to support the local economy (see Grocers brief, School Food Procurement brief, College and Hospital Procurement brief).
Many of Vermont’s residents cannot afford to increase their spending on food. Food expenditures are often the most flexible of basic needs, that is, in the short term, it is easier to purchase less or cheaper food than to lower housing or transportation costs. Local food is often more expensive than that produced out-of-state at the industrial scale. However, Vermont farmers are unable to reduce the cost of the foods they produce and net farm incomes are often below livable wage themselves. Vermont’s effort to increase access to local food by all its residents must do so with an understanding of production costs and attention to providing a livable net income for farmers.