Getting Everyone to the Table
Brattleboro’s Community Food Security Project
Written onSeptember 01 , 2009
Food has the unique potential to bring families and communities together like nothing else. But food, or access to food, also has the potential to illustrate how communities are segregated. In our society there is a distinct, yet often overlooked, separation between low, middle, and upper classes, and between people of different races, with the bulk of economic and educational privileges reserved for white, middle-income and upper-class folks. Unfortunately, food reflects this societal separation.
While some people in Vermont have committed to eating fresh, locally produced food as often as possible, many residents of our state are struggling just to put food on the table. A key theme that has emerged from our first year of work on the Community Food Security Project in the Brattleboro area is that many families just aren’t earning enough income to buy staple foods, not to mention fruit and vegetables, and buying local and organic is simply out of the question.
Breaking Down the Barriers
As part of the vibrant local food movement of Vermont, the citizens’ groupPost Oil Solutions (POS) has been working toward food sustainability since it was founded in 2005 to help build a self-sufficient, post-petroleum society. We joined POS in the spring of 2008, as students at the SIT Graduate Institute, and we soon began working with POS Executive Director Tim Stevenson and fellow SIT student Liz Sheehan to design a food security project that would reach out to all community members. We felt it was important to address basic food security issues in light of the fact that more than 10 percent of Vermonters are hungry.
The result was the Community Food Security Project, whose mission is to increase access to locally produced food for people of all incomes around Brattleboro. We took our inspiration from the nationwide Community Food Security Coalition, which defines community food security as “a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, and nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.” With this as our goal, we collaborated on and initiated a variety of projects: several new community gardens, including one at the Oak Grove Elementary School; self-watering container garden projects with several partners, including the Southern Vermont AIDS Project; a partnership with the Vermont Food Bank’s Salvation Farms Gleaning Network to bring gleaning to the Brattleboro area; a two-acre farm at the SIT Graduate Institute; cooking classes and community meals; community-wide education and outreach on food justice and food sovereignty; and the Westgate Housing Community Farmers’ Market.
Many of our activities, such as the community gardens, were fairly easy to organize in an atmosphere that supports local food. However, one of the greatest challenges of our work is that it focuses on a generally overlooked segment of society—people who are often subject to the decisions of policy makers and nonprofits, but who are rarely at the decision-making table. Being very aware of our own white, middle-class privilege, we felt a need to break down personal and societal norms and barriers that kept us from listening to the voices of others in order to build true community. We recognized that if we were going to truly bring all community voices to the table, we had to be intentional about building community across race and class.
This is why we initially conducted a Rapid Community Food Assessment in which five focus groups from diverse perspectives—including people of low-income, farmers, policy-makers, and nonprofit staff—came together to discuss food security in the Brattleboro area. This was a chance to learn together about the barriers to food security and what is currently being done about them, while also discussing what needs to be done to make the area more food secure. Based on the data collected in the focus groups, we produced a report called “Healthy Food Is a Human Right! Community Food Security for the Brattleboro Area,” which includes many recommendations for future actions.
The Westgate Housing Community Farmers’ Market
One of the ideas that came out of the assessment was to create a farmers’ market at the Westgate Housing Community, a 98-unit low- to middle-income community in West Brattleboro. We met with residents multiple times, including during a potluck with a nearby farmer, Amy Frost from Circle Mountain Farm. She was interested in selling some of her produce to Westgate residents, so she gave a projected picture of what a weekly “market basket” would contain and at what price. A small group of customers agreed to participate for the season.
The project started with 10 baskets, and more folks have joined each week. At the time of this writing, there are 15 market baskets purchased every week, and folks—especially the kids—are excited to walk down to the market outside their building, talk to Frost, and pick up their fresh veggies. Frost relies on her regular CSA shares and retail sales at the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market for the majority of her income, and therefore is able to offer residents the reduced rate of $15 for a full weekly market basket and $7.50 for a half-basket.
“As a farmer, I am low income, and to be able to make a living and serve other low-income neighbors is refreshing,” Frost says. “And I am honored to be able to spend time with my neighbors and to grow food that is affordable for people who don’t fit into the traditional market model of retail prices. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Jesse Kayan, Westgate’s community services coordinator who helps organize the pilot project, notes that “While many lower income folks continue to be frustrated by how unaffordable it is to access local food, the Westgate market basket program is one step toward bridging that gap and making good food affordable to everyone.” A key component of the pilot project is that folks can use their food stamp benefits using EBT cards.
By intentionally working with low-income housing sites such as Westgate, we crossed a barrier that opened up space for new interactions and learning. Each site presented its own unique set of opportunities and challenges, which shaped the potential collaboration. In many cases, our ideas of what to bring to a community were altered after meeting with community leaders and residents. One site said that they were surprised, and honored, that we were taking the time to work with them. Another site never contacted us again after our meeting with them.
A valuable lesson came out of one particular community. In the early stages of our project, we brought a middle-class perspective to our work by promoting community gardens there, instead of working with the community to discover their food security needs. Our initial meetings were promising, but the momentum was gone by the time spring rolled around. When the housing authority proposed garden space to the residents, nobody signed up and the project was dropped. Instead of giving up, we proposed to at least work with kids in the community to grow a pumpkin patch, and eventually we planted a Three Sisters garden and some flowers with the children. While we succeeded in starting a garden, though, it was not a successful community-building project, as there was little community involvement. The lesson was that we need to support projects that come out of communities, instead of doing what we think is needed or wanted. We hope that next season we can learn from our mistakes and build on the work of our first season.
Photo by Barbi Schreiber: Liz Sheehan of the Community Food Security Project and Amy Frost from Circle Mountain Farm at the Westgate Farmers’ Market