By: Rachel Carter
Even in locally conscious Vermont, only an estimated 5% of the food consumed by Vermonters is actually produced in state. Reliance on food grown and distributed outside of the region and decisions made outside of local control make for an unbalanced food system, even in a state that is a leader in the local food movement.
Food insecurity in Vermont is also on the rise with 13% of households being food insecure (compared to 9.1% in 2000). Despite an increase in food access programs, not everyone can shop at a farmers market. Convenience and cost are key factors keeping most Vermonters shopping at conventional grocery stores where, at the height of the local food harvest, shelves are stocked with tomatoes from Mexico, greens from Argentina, and (with the exception of Vermont’s Cabot Cheese) cheeses from national or international corporations.
The answer for improving markets for Vermont farmers and better serving consumers is for development of a regional food system in New England and New York, which includes 33 million potential customers.
Vermont’s Farm to Plate Strategic Plan seeks to expand farmers’ access to institutional markets like groceries, restaurants, and institutions like schools. However, serving regional markets instead of just local ones requires some changes in infrastructure and services.
To help this transition, the director of Vermont’s Farm to Plate initiative, Erica Campbell, said that they are actively building a network of grocers, distributors, producers and regulators through the implementation of Vermont’s food system plan. “This is a necessary step before local producers can move to a regional scale,” she said.
“Grocery store owners and buyers procure food through large distributors so local farmers do not often have relationships with retailers as they did many years ago,” Campbell continued. “There are multiple issues that need to be addressed to move more local food into grocery stores at a reasonable price.”
Scaling up for a regional food system
Direct sales through CSAs, farm stands and farmers markets account for only 3.5% of total agricultural sales in Vermont, according the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture. That’s still enough to make Vermont the sixth highest in the nation for direct sales.
As the local and regional food movement continues to grow, some farmers and food entrepreneurs are seeking additional markets. To scale up, they are finding they need customers beyond their state’s borders. Farm to institution expansion, developing more robust wholesale markets and opportunities, and getting more local food into mainstream retail and grocery stores are on the horizon and will undoubtedly become a bigger part of local food sales in the near future.
“By getting more local food into more retail and institutional outlets, more people will have access to the good quality food being grown in our state and region,” Campbell said.
Vermont isn’t alone in its efforts to think regionally. Each New England state is participating in the “New England Food Vision.” The initiative seeks to produce at least 50 percent of the fresh, fair, and accessible food consumed by New Englanders by 2060.
Vermont Farm to Plate is the statewide initiative legislatively directed to increase economic development and jobs in Vermont’s farm and food sector and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters. A ten year plan to strengthen the working landscape, build the resilience of farms and food enterprises, improve environmental quality, and increase healthy, local food access for all Vermonters is being implemented by over 350 farm and food sector organizations from across the state. Learn more at www.VTFarmtoPlate.com.
Rachel Carter is the communications director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, a non-profit organization created by the State of Vermont to help develop Vermont’s sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and forest product businesses. A homesteader, she resides in Plainfield, Vermont.