July 24, 2012

From Burlington to Baltimore, the Bronx, and Beyond

Marian H. Dickinson

Marian H. Dickinson

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

School lunch at Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes, Burlington, Vermont

When developing a new vaccine, we first test it in a lab. When it comes to changing the food system, how do you set up an isolated experiment to see if something works? Turns out you move to Vermont.

So it makes sense that the University of Vermont should invite 28 emerging leaders in the food system to come see how the experiment is going.

Vermont’s small size and independent politics have made it the perfect place for developing a regional food system. Just over 600,000 people live in Vermont (the same as in Baltimore) and according to my unscientific observations during my week-long visit, they all know each other. For example, while listening to the executive director of Vermont Soy explain how he came to locate in Hardwick, Vermont, a customer came for a pick-up. Our tour guide and owner of an organic seed company down the road knew right where to find the order and offered to put it together so the director could finish his talk.

Although Vermont’s short growing season and mountainous terrain make agriculture tougher, it turns out they’re a blessing in disguise. There’s minimal “big ag” influence in Vermont, so politicians aren’t beholden to any Cargills or Monsantos. Instead, the university president, State Secretary of Agriculture, and Governor (among others) all felt free to publicly support the movement toward regional food networks. You won’t find that in Iowa.

Here’s some of what you will find:

Bread and Butter Farm: Farmer Corie Pierce takes multi-tasking to new heights. Her farm produces vegetables, raw milk, fresh baked bread, grass-fed beef, and a weekly restaurant. “Burger Night” has never been advertised but flocks of Burlington residents make the short drive for the beef or vegetarian burgers with fresh salads and cookies eaten on the farm. Even on our chilly and windy night, the tables were full and a patient line waited to place their orders.

Vermont Farm to Plate Initiative: Backed by the governor, this 47-page plan outlines the responsibilities of the Farm to Plate Investment Program, passed into legislation in 2009. It boldly asks Vermonters, “Can we feed ourselves?” and the group gathered around this project is truly calculating if it’s possible and what it would take. (Spoiler: no one’s willing to give up coffee, so I think the answer is not completely.)

Highfields Center for Composting: These “dirty” guys are taking decomposing food scraps to a whole new level. Highfields is experimenting with designing compost for specific crop issues. Imagine if the particular bouquet of bacteria in your dirt helped protect your crops from blight. It’s on its way.

High Mowing Organic Seeds: If Highfields is dirty, these guys are seedy. Here a young entrepreneur has crossed organic farmers with traditional seed growers to share skills and build up the market for organic seeds. His growers ship him seeds from across the country to be distributed to backyard gardeners and organic for-profit farmers.

Fletcher Allen Hospital: Take a moment and create your mental picture of hospital food. For some reason my mental picture always includes Jello. Throw that image out the window if you get rushed to Fletcher Allen. This hospital has installed its own garden over the new radiology wing and strives to make their cafeteria and room service offerings local, organic, or sustainably produced. When they couldn’t source local chicken breasts, the kitchen staff volunteered to cut up whole chickens instead. But that would cost too much, right? The Director of Nutrition Services doesn’t buy that. She has kept their budget and their staffing steady through the entire transition.

Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes: This magnet pre-K through grade 5 school takes their sustainability theme seriously all the way through lunchtime. I greatly appreciate what my grade-school cooks did at New Knoxville Local, but the chef at the Sustainability Academy provides her students vegetarian and meat options, a daily salad bar with local produce, all while being mindful of the 15+ cultures represented in the student body. See for yourself. Upon seeing the photo [above], one of my high school classmates commented, “Are those real carrots?” Yes, they are. My favorite tip from the chef was that any root vegetable cut like French fries and baked with olive oil and salt make for kid friendly sides. The kids’ favorite—pink fries made from beets.

Even with all these great examples (and more), something was still missing in Vermont. Something irked several of us participants. Everyone we met looked and sounded a lot like most of us—white, under 40 years of age, and college-educated. (This shouldn’t be terribly shocking since Vermont is 95.5 percent white, and 33 percent of adults over 25 have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 78 and 28 percent, respectively, in the U.S.).

From the outside looking in, this seems to be working for Vermont. But the food system revolution in Vermont cannot be the same food system revolution that Baltimore needs, or any other city or state. Just like in a research lab, certain principles can be extracted and perhaps reapplied in different settings. But the real world is not going to work the same way as a lab.

For the revolution to gain ground and meet a wider population, we must modify and expand the initial experiments. We need more researchers from all perspectives—education levels and backgrounds, age, race, gender, and more—to reimagine the food system into something more sustainable and wider reaching.

We need more visionaries like Stephen Ritz from the Bronx, who spoke at the public summit in Vermont along with CLF’s director, Robert Lawrence. Ritz has taught his high school students how to grow organic vegetables that will earn them more money than they could make growing marijuana.

And next year’s summit needs to include more visionaries like brother and sister duo Alphonzo and Allison Cross, who opened a new kind of convenience store in a food desert of Atlanta. The Boxcar Grocer is described as “the intersection of food justice and high-concept retail,” and it is designed to serve the surrounding community with organic food that is grown in the city. These individuals are connecting with communities of people not traditionally seen on the bucolic labels of pasture-raised milk, and we need them, and more, in the food system revolution.

We need people who look like my dad, too. He runs a small family-owned and operated dairy farm in Ohio. His milk isn’t organic, but this isn’t his first rodeo, and he could teach a young college-educated new farmer a thing or two. We can only gain by inviting experienced farmers to the table to share the mistakes and successes of generations of conventional farming.

The food revolution needs places like Vermont where the climate is right for experimenting with new ideas for food production and distribution. I am grateful that many young, college educated people are dedicating their time and talents to the important task of finding a way to feed everyone safe and health-promoting food for many generations to come, because I share that goal.

Want to learn more? The University of Vermont is taking inquiries for next year’s summit. Sign up and join the discussion to bring your unique voice to the table. Continue the conversation on twitter @MarianHD1 #UVMSummit

Photo by Marian Dickinson.


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