Sustainability may be one of the “hot topics” in non-commercial foodservice, but providing seasonal, local produce on a grand scale—and within the confines of a limited budget—is a challenge for operators. At Food Works at Two Rivers Center, a non-profit organization in Montpelier, Vt., a program called Farm-to-Table is creating a viable local food system for schools, hospitals, senior centers and other central Vermont institutions. The program provides these sites with fresh, local produce, at wholesale prices and directly from the farmers.
Although Farm–to-Table officially started in 2005, its origins go back 20 years, says Martin Kemple, co-founder of the organization. “We started around the issue of childhood hunger,” he explains. “Our Garden for Learning program taught children how to grow and pick their own food as part of a school summer lunch program. From that, we wanted to include elders in the program, to teach the younger generations about how to grow food—skills that are disappearing today.”
To thank the elders for their participation, the center began delivering produce to senior meal sites. The response from the seniors was enthusiastic. “Some of them hadn’t eaten fresh vegetables for a number of years,” Kemple notes.
Soon, the organization’s five-acre farm became too small to accommodate the demand. So, in 2003, Food Works began contracting with local farms. Kemple admits that the program was not well organized. “It was hit and miss,” he says.
Logistical challenges: As the program continued to grow, the need to rework its logistics became clear.
“We decided that we wanted to upgrade and do outreach to other places in central Vermont, beyond just the senior meal sites,” says Kemple.
“What we had at that point was the genesis of a regional, sustainable food system,” adds Sara Lisniansky, coordinator. “In the summer of 2005, the program started increasing rapidly in size and we moved to a different model. Instead of a giveaway program, we started operating as wholesalers.”
The Farm-to-Table program currently involves 18 farmers and 42 meal sites, which include schools (25%), senior centers and residences (33%), hospitals and community mental health programs, as well as food pantries, which receive donations of excess product. In 2006, over $46,000 worth of produce was purchased and distributed to these sites. The prices institutions pay are subsidized by grants, but the farmers receive fair market value for their goods.
The production cycle revolves around a preorder system. In early winter, Lisniansky sits down with the farmers to create a plan that details which crops each farmer will harvest every week. When the growing season starts, Lisniansky sends out a list of available products to the sites on a weekly basis. They place orders, and the following week, farmers make their deliveries to the Two Rivers Center. Lisniansky and her team of assistants and volunteers then package and distribute the produce to the sites.
“We (also) offer working retreats where we bring together a diverse group of chefs and foodservice directors, everyone from up-and-coming chefs to women in their 80s who are cooking for their fellow seniors,” Lisniansky explains. “We bring in chefs who have more of a background in seasonal cooking, which is a paradigm shift for a lot of chefs who work in larger institutions. They’re used to using kiwis whenever they feel like using kiwis, but they might not be familiar with rutabagas. Our goal is to help them shift their model of planning to basing their menus on what is available locally each season.”
Produce integrity: According to Martin, the average food item served in this country has to travel 1,200 to 1,500 miles from farm to plate, which robs produce of “freshness and vitality.”
Reid Asaro, a chef at East Montpelier Elementary School, says he has participated in the program since he started working at the school last year. “It’s great because it allows me to get produce from the farmers the day after its been picked,” he comments, “I know how these products have been grown and handled, and I know that they’ll have a long shelf life.”
Asaro speaks enthusiastically of the red leaf lettuce that he orders each week. “Every part of it is usable. I don’t have to strip off the outer leaves,” he says. “There’s no waste.”
Although sites like Asaro’s pay only about 50% of the price that farmers receive, Farm-to-Table products, which are generally organic, tend to cost more than conventionally grown ones. Depending on the season, a shipment can cost anywhere from 10% to 33% more than one from a supplier like Conagra, says Asaro. Nevertheless, he feels that the long shelf life, lack of waste and “superior quality” of the product make it worth the extra cost. In the off-season, his produce is 30% to 40% Farm-to-Table-supplied (“mostly root vegetables”), and in the fall, he relies on Farm-to-Table for at least 80% of his fruits and vegetables.
Building a Community: “There are not many alternatives to our program,” states Kemple. “Most of our farmers are small and aren’t wholesaling. They sell directly to restaurants and at farmers’ markets, and of course the prices there are higher. We’re providing access where there wasn’t any before.”
As people become more aware of the advantages of sustainability, Farm-to-Table’s scope increases. Last year, orders rose by nearly 25%, and the team expects similar growth this year.
“Besides the nutritional advantages, people are realizing that there are all kinds of economic and ecological reasons for eating local,” Kemple explains. “The fact that conventional produce has to travel all those miles puts greenhouse gasses into the air and contributes to global warming. But maybe the most important part is that it allows people to get to know their local farmers. We feel that keeping that connection to the land and the people who grow foods is very important in any community.”