Delivering the Goods in Windham County
Written onNovember 27 , 2013
“Eat Fresh! Eat Local!”
Back in 2008, teacher Hans Estrin’s ecology students at The Putney School heard that rallying cry and launched a well-intentioned project: Take the surplus from the 3-acre garden at the private and progressive Putney School and donate it for lunches at the public Putney Central Elementary School, just down the hill. “It was a great idea!” says Hans. “Our gardens had surplus, and the public school could certainly use some fresh produce.”
And it was a complete flop.
What seemed like such a simple thing to accomplish was more challenging in reality than anyone expected. Hans, (who is currently on extended leave from University of Vermont Extension teaching science in Kazakhstan) explains it this way: “The plan failed miserably, largely because there was no system to connect the food with the school.” Garden surplus appeared suddenly but often there would be no one around to load and truck it down the hill to Putney Central. And even when it did get delivered, frequently the food went to waste because the week’s menu at the public school was already planned and in preparation, and there were too few ready hands to do the extra processing that garden-fresh foods require.
Discouraged but not defeated, Hans held onto the idea. “I clearly saw what I had to do. I would rekindle the smoldering concept and devise a practical plan to deliver healthy produce from local farms to nearby school cafeterias. It made so much sense that there must be a way.”
Hans spent the next year pitching what he good-humoredly calls a “half-baked idea,” ferreting out willing partners from among the like-minded people he already knew—and some he soon got to know. Paul Harlow, owner of Westminster Organics and one of the largest and most successful certified organic growers in New England, took to the idea immediately. Andrea Darrow of Putney’s Green Mountain Orchards came aboard soon after. Jennifer Dusenbury, who oversaw food service at Putney Central School, was also enthusiastic. When the four of them met around Hans’s kitchen table in the summer of 2009, the pilot for Windham Farm and Food was created.
Within a few months, Hans was able to sell his half-baked idea to two more important players: Jamie Baribeau, director of food and nutrition at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, and John Ayer, the head of food service for Brattleboro Union High School. In the fall of 2009, Windham Farm and Food was officially launched as a “sub-company” within Harlow’s Westminster Organics. The plan at that point was elegantly simple: offer schools an online inventory and ordering system, weekly deliveries in one of Westminster Organics’ refrigerated trucks leased by the mile, and 30-days net invoicing.
And it worked.
Since its grassroots beginnings that first season, Windham Farm and Food has grown by more than 400 percent, now managing deliveries from more than 30 farms to more than 60 business clients, schools and nonprofit institutions in the Windham County region. Says Hans: “There are a lot of organizations in Windham County that want easy and affordable access to locally produced food. In 2012, sales were more than $140,000—and a full 85 cents of every dollar of goods sold by WFF goes straight back to the farmer.”
With such rapid growth, the elegantly simple plan has morphed into a system of considerable complexity. Local farmers and vendors of high-quality, value-added food products (like Orchard Hill Breadworks and Green Mountain Creamery)
input the inventory they have available into the online Harvest-to-Market website created by software engineer Andrew Waters. Notification of the week’s products is emailed to registered clients. Orders for delivery on Tuesdays must be placed via the website by 8:00 am on Monday; orders for Friday delivery by 8:00 am Thursday.
The master order list is sent to Andy Loughney, WFF’s operations manager and deliveryman, who is tasked with calculating how to arrange his pickups and deliveries for the day. Those days begin at 8:00 am at Westminster Organics, where the big refrigerated truck is loaded with Westminster’s contributions and fired up for that road. Then, according to what the day’s orders look like, Andy will spend 8 to 10 hours on the road, first picking up from each vendor, then making deliveries to businesses like Vermont Country Deli, institutions like Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, and schools—including public schools in Brattleboro, Putney, Dummerston, Vernon, Newbrook, Townshend, Guilford and Bellows Falls.
Just as a half-baked idea became a functioning reality thanks to the cooperative efforts of a committed group of enthusiastic individuals, important relationships forged with nonprofit organizations—such as the University of Vermont Extension, and Post Oil Solutions, a nonprofit whose mission includes increasing local access to local food—helped Windham Farm and Food evolve.
The Vermont Community Foundation also played a key role in the financing and development of Post Oil Solutions’ innovative food system programs, which tied in greatly with Windham Farm and Food. The significant success of its Farm-to-School initiative led, just this August, to Post Oil spinning off that program into an independent nonprofit called Food Connects. Founded by Richard Berkfield, the former executive director of Post Oil Solutions, and Katherine Gillespie, who led Post Oil’s Farm-to-School effort, Food Connects provides food and nutrition education to school educators, food service directors, farmers, and community members, and increases local food purchasing at home through innovative Buying Clubs.
The Buying Clubs are an integral part of both Food Connects’ and WFF’s efforts. Staff from Food Connects organize and collate individual families’ orders into wholesale lots and places them with WFF through the on-line Harvest-to-Market system. The orders are then dropped off by WFF at each Buying Club pick-up site, most of which are located at schools already ordering from WFF. Although anyone can order through a Buying Club, the focus of the program is on low-income families, who have the opportunity to purchase directly from farms at near-wholesale prices using their SNAP accounts and have the food delivered to them at a convenient location. “We do have a sliding scale and ask higher income buyers to pay a service fee to help offset the costs of providing less expensive foods to our lower income families,” says Hanna Jenkins, Food Connects’ farm-to-community program manager.
Nancy Goodhue, the health and family consumer science teacher at Brattleboro Area Middle School, is excited about the Buying Club experience there: “It’s really great to have this good food in the school, for parents to come into the school, and for students to have the opportunity to do meaningful work with fresh food.” And as Food Connects’ Richard Berkfield expresses it, “Working together, Food Connects and Windham Farm and Food are like two wings of a bird serving a shared purpose.”
Now that Vermont’s local food movement is tackling issues of access, storage, and delivery, these Windham County programs can serve as examples of creative, grassroots, small-scale programs that work. In just four years, the humble and fragile beginnings of Windham Farm and Food—“a half-baked idea”—have evolved into a self-sustaining, economically viable, and easily replicable system for achieving what should be so very simple: making fresh, healthy food from hard-working small producers affordable and available to all the people who live nearby.