WINOOSKI — Jaws dropped statewide over the summer when a study revealed that farms statewide are losing more than 14 million pounds of marketable food a year.
But now, a new surplus crop food hub that has opened in Winooski aims to broaden access to those millions of pounds of produce.
Salvation Farms officially opened the Vermont Commodity Program in Winooski during a Sept. 27 kickoff event, which drew more than 70 people to the 276 East Allen St. facility.
The launch allowed guests to catch a glimpse of what is happening at the commodity program: a workforce cleans, assesses and packs marketable crops that stay on farm fields. A crew sorted nearly 1,000 pounds of apples into five-pound bags that were destined for charitable food programs around the state.
“The kickoff went very well,” said Theresa Snow, executive director of Salvation Farms, a Morrisville nonprofit that has worked with farmers for more than a decade to capture and distribute un-marketed crops. “There were lots of people mingling, which I think made some of our packers uneasy, but I also think their apprehension turned to pride. People were curious about what they were doing. They wanted to learn from them.”
Salvation Farms’ new facility will fill a key role in decreasing the amount of food lost on Vermont farms annually. In July, Salvation Farms released a study, conducted with Isgood Research, that showed more than 14.3 million pounds of Vermont-grown produce goes uneaten each year.
Salvation Farms began the empirical study last year in order to understand the scope of food loss, defined as edible, quality crops that are neither sold nor donated. Snow initially projected somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million pounds of edible or salable food lost each year, so the results of the study shocked her and others in the agriculture industry.
At the Sept. 27 event, Abbey Willard, head of the food systems section at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, said that while the news is “concerning” about food loss on Vermont farms, her agency sees the data as a promotional and marketing opportunity.
“We see the development of this program and its connection to new partnerships as an important component to promoting the viability of Vermont farms and job creation in the agricultural sector,” Willard said.
Salvation Farms has one of the eight units located at 276 East Allen St. The commodity program occupies 5,000 square feet and Salvation Farms subleases 1,500 square feet of that space to Have Your Cake catering.
The program site has one full-time staff member who oversees an eight-person crew of trainees who clean, assess and pack the crops for shipping and distribution. The program is working with a wholesale distributor.
During the program’s first 16-week cycle, Salvation Farms estimates the commodity program will process at least 100,000 pounds of unsold but edible crops, resulting in more than 300,000 servings. For now, the food is going to the Vermont Foodbank and several other charitable organizations throughout the state.
“We hope to serve institutions at some point,” Snow said.
Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard, who spoke at the launch, applauded Salvation Farms for its diligent efforts to provide more Vermonters with food that might otherwise go to waste. He wholeheartedly welcomed Salvation Farms to Winooski.
“Having Salvation Farms in Winooski is truly a meaningful addition,” Leonard said. “We are proud of the diversity of business growth we have seen take root. Having a socially responsible innovator like Salvation Farms in Winooski builds a social conscious and awareness around important opportunities that exist to bring greater food security to Vermonters and eliminate waste.”
Currently, Salvation Farms is sourcing for the commodity program through Salvation Farms’ own Vermont Gleaning Collective, a network of gleaning groups around the state. Salvation Farms’ staff has also coordinated volunteer gleaning groups to source food for the program.
The Healthy Roots Collaborative, based at the Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans, was involved in the food loss study and will continue to work with Salvation Farms. Data from Salvation Farms’ study show nearly 680,000 pounds could have been gleaned from just Franklin and Grand Isle County farms alone over the past year.
“This type of hard evidence is not only validating for organizations like ours but it’s also crucial for funders to be able to see,” said Johanna Setta, Healthy Roots specialist for the medical center.
Vermont Commodity Program was tested at several sites in Vermont, including the Southeast State Correctional Facility, where crews of six inmates at a time spent three winters sorting, assessing and packing a total 270,000 pounds of food that went to charitable organizations.
While work continues at the program, Snow and her colleagues are seeking funding to continue their work — this time, in the field. Salvation Farms is already talking with the Agency of Agriculture, food producers and others about Phase 2 of the study, which will likely involve Isgood Research again. The goal is to take the report from observation to real theory, from a paper survey to on-farm studies.
“It hinges on funding, honestly,” Snow said. “Funding is critical right now.”
There is another aspect to the program not mentioned in the study. Over the last couple of years, other studies out of Vermont have shown there is still a lack of access to healthy food for many low-income Vermonters. Meanwhile the state is showing record numbers in job growth in the agricultural sector, yet sky-high numbers in farm food loss.
Those facts make three dots on a piece of paper, but the lines that connect them are not straight, and more people need to be talking more closely if the lines are to straighten, Snow explained.
“We have more food on this planet to feed everybody, yet we have food loss in Vermont — the leader in the locavore movement,” Snow said. “When we think about what food ‘profit’ means, it doesn’t always mean ‘monetary.’ It can be about equity, too.”