January 12, 2007: In Vermont, collaborative efforts
amongst community members, non-profit organizations, retailers and
local farmers are broadening the appeal of local products to more
consumers through targeted education and improved accessibility.
“Buying Local” is not a new trend in Vermont. The
grandparents of “woodchucks” (the real Vermonters, i.e.
people with at least three generations in the state), remember local
food as a necessary staple. Maple syrup and honey were cheaper than
conventional white sugar. Apples were the available fruit, while
oranges were a Christmas stocking delicacy. Seasonal game shared
amongst families and friends was the main source of protein.
“In the early twentieth century, many immigrants who came
to Vermont from the cities to work in the woolen mills and granite
quarries continued to grow their own garden plots, foraged wild
greens, and bought animals whole from local farmers,” explains
Melissa Paesen, food writer for the Burlington Free Press, northwestern
Vermont’s daily newspaper. “The immigrant ethic went
well with the New England do-it-yourself, self-sufficient farming
ethic. You grew or made what you could and nothing was wasted.”
Because of the media buzz about it, many consumers now think of
local food as a specialty product, purchased at cooperative markets
for prices often higher than the similar commercial product.
“When it comes down to it, local food isn’t any more
expensive than the food that most people buy at the deli during
a lunch break at work,” says Dave Zuckerman, an organic vegetable
farmer and chairman of the Vermont legislature’s agricultural
committee. “What’s really important is educating people
to realize, 'Okay, this food is tastier, better for you, and equally
priced, if not cheaper than my lunch. I just have to take the time
to make it myself.'”
Efforts under way in Burlington show that it takes a community
to build a local food system and lots of different strands to allow
people to take first nibbles or big bites of local food, depending
on their knowledge, motivation and economic ability.
Hybrid co-op reaches out
A drive through the downtown area of Burlington, a progressive
city seated above Lake Champlain, reveals a single grocery store,
the community-owned City Market (www.citymarket.coop).
Its presence shows what some talking and planning can do to create
new food options—and how new models take time to develop.
When a commercial supermarket chain closed its downtown store in
order to open a bigger store several miles outside the city center,
Burlington leaders had a choice. There was a strong bid from a commercial
competitor and interest from the smaller Onion River Cooperative
market housed in a less-appealing part of town.
The marketability of a community-owned cooperative in the center
of an already alluring downtown pedestrian marketplace had obvious
appeal. Some argued, however, that a cooperative market would isolate
the elderly and low-income citizens who counted on a commercial
market for many of their needs, which were different than those
of the co-op’s customers. The skeptics believed a city cooperative
would sell a more expensive product, offer reduced selection, and
hence, appeal less to residents of the community.
A compromise was reached that created the City Market concept.
The lease agreement with the city allocates 70 percent of the market’s
shelves for organic unprocessed foods to serve the co-op’s
membership. The remaining 30 percent of the shelves contains conventional
groceries, priced competitively, to meet the needs of the general
Five years after its inception in 2002, the City Market contains
enthusiastic and vibrant college students working the cash register
while organic-conscious consumers contentedly stroll the aisles.
The store’s website boasts that 73 percent of the store’s
vendors are located in Vermont and that 60 cents of every dollar
in sales stays in Vermont. Yet the customer profile fails to reflect
the diversity of the Burlington community.
When questioned about this impression, Jodi Harrington, public
relations representative for the City Market, explains: “It’s
an absolute issue and absolute challenge to make our market more
accessible to the broader community. But it has to be done.”
Several efforts to ensure that the market welcomes diverse members
of the community include lunches with the elderly, additional television
advertising and machines for bottle recycling, which Harrington
contends is “a seemingly insignificant measure, but a necessary
part of the process.”
Harrington speaks with encouragement of the “thirty percent
annual increase in the food stamps that come through the store each
year,” but contends, “The local paper gave us a C minus
on this type of work; we have to do better.”
The City Market is a relative success, but it demonstrates the
difficulty of expanding local food marketing into the homes of community
members where convenience and price remain top concerns. Reaching
a diverse range of community members may take effort, but it brings
a lot more local dollars to the marketplace.
Linking the farmer to the community
“Good old fashioned entrepreneurship” is how Hank
Bissel of the Lewis Creek Farm in Starksboro, Vermont, defines the
solution for expanding local food. “A good, consistent product
and consistent delivery is really what it takes.”
Bissel has owned and operated Lewis Creek Farm since 1981. The
150-acre farm is located in a picturesque valley at the foot of
the Green Mountains, 20 miles southeast from Burlington. Lewis Creek
runs through 50 acres of lush river bottom soil. The farm’s
produce includes potatoes, spinach, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes,
cabbage, broccoli, fresh herbs and squash. Though not a certified
organic farm, the crops are either unsprayed or come in contact
with organic sprays.
Bissel is an active member of the state’s farming community
and has been president of the Burlington Farmers’ Market for
more than two decades. The market works with the Farm to Family
program to provide lower-income community members with food stamps
used to purchase produce at the farmers’ market. This expands
local-food access for that sector of the community.
Several of the vendors at the Burlington Farmers’ Market
also accept Burlington Bread Currency, implemented by the Burlington
Currency Project (www.burlingtoncurrency.org)
in an attempt to help small businesses and farmers by encouraging
exchanges between community members. The idea is that a local currency
will forge a central exchange for trading locally produced and supplied
products and services while also promoting visible loyalty to the
Since the currency is backed only by shared confidence, however,
many farmers and businessmen—including Bissel—do not
currently accept it.
Bringing the farm to the school
Both the City Market and the farmers’ market have helped
to raise community awareness for buying local food. A collaboration
of food and farm groups has tapped into another significant community
resource, the public schools.
Vermont’s FEED program (Food Education Every Day www.vtfeed.org)
is a partnership of Food Works, the Northeast Organic Farming Association
of Vermont (NOFA-VT www.nofavt.org),
and Shelburne Farms (www.shelburnefarms.org).
It works with school districts to provide local food in cafeterias
and agricultural education. This is a sound market for obvious reasons,
including the fact that what a child learns in school often generates
discussion and interest at the family dinner table.
VT FEED works with schools and communities to raise awareness about
healthy food, the role of Vermont farms and farmers and good nutrition.
It acts as a catalyst for rebuilding healthy food systems and serves
to cultivate the links between the classrooms, cafeterias, local
farms and communities.
“When we present programs at schools, we have been told that
student attendance always goes up and that visits to the planning
room go down,” says Dana Hudson, the enthusiastic program
coordinator for FEED, “The kids really look forward to it.”
Bissel, of the Lewis Creek Farm, credits FEED for helping to introduce
his farm to school students. Currently, Bissel is active with several
school districts and Middlebury College.
“Each school district is completely different,” he
says. “It’s difficult to sell your product as a farmer
to schools; it helps a lot to have someone more active in the education
community to market its benefits for you.”
His interaction with schools has taught him that people are starved
for a connection to the land. “They want a good story that
makes them feel closer to the farm and the product.”
A visible and active example local agriculture building economic
opportunity is the Intervale Farm in Burlington, which exists under
the non-profit Intervale Center (www.intervale.org).
Its mission is to develop both farm and land-based enterprises that
generate economic and social opportunity while protecting natural
This productive landscape, lying within the city limits, has been
an agricultural parcel for more than 10,000 years due to its location
on a flood plain—with a short stint as the city dump before
a rejuvenation project restored the land.
The Intervale participates in a farms-to-school program called
Growing Farms-Growing Minds. This collaborative effort helps teachers
develop food-based curricula that use food, farms and nutrition
to meet the Vermont Framework of Standards. Today, 12 small, local
organic farms in the Intervale Farms Program provide a diverse range
of Vermont residents with about 6 percent—or 500,000 pounds—of
their fresh produce needs per year.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) at the Intervale and around
the state is another successful local-food economic stream, linking
households to a particular farm for the CSA season.
The CSA commitment to buy a weekly delivery of what’s in
season where you live is a strong step toward a new partnership
between families and farmers, one that doesn’t suit all households.
Intermediate steps—retail stores, schools, farmers’
market and restaurants—increase access and attention to local
food that can draw more food into the local economy. When they are
done well, the flavor, stories and benefits of eating local will
increase opportunities for more local food more often in more places.