Building Resilience into the Food System - The Story of Salvation Farms
If you were to visit High Mowing Organic Seeds last winter on a Sunday, you might have found Theresa Snow wandering the fulfillment aisles, filling orders and getting some weekend hours into her busy schedule. You wouldn’t know it from a quiet weekend at our warehouse, but Theresa and High Mowing have a history of collaboration that goes back more than a decade, and has changed many lives in that time. Back in 2004, Theresa piloted a gleaning project at a local farm. What has evolved in the last ten years is a one-woman wonder show resulting in more than a million pounds of gleaned produce feeding people who need it most. High Mowing Organic Seeds was one of the first organizations to partner with Salvation Farms, and that relationship continues today, growing in capacity as Salvation Farms forges new groundbreaking projects.
What is Gleaning?
Gleaning is the process of salvaging or harvesting food that is unsalable. There are many reasons why food may be considered unsalable, generally due to marketing purposes. Yet the food is still edible, usable, and nutritious. Gleaners find excess on farms for many reasons, perhaps due to over plantings, market fluctuations or funny looking produce (three legged carrot anyone?). Here at High Mowing Seeds, we have a large amount of produce to be gleaned at the end of the seed production cycle, as most our crops are grown for seed, not food. Even the most efficient farmers can have food waste in the field or after a market, and it adds up – by Salvation Farms’ estimate, about 2 million pounds of fruit and vegetables are wasted in Vermont every year. But farmers are busy folks with little free time and can’t harvest what isn’t profitable to them. A professional and organized gleaning team can partner with a farmer to salvage a huge amount of food, increasing access to and consumption of local food by the local community.
The Beginning of Salvation Farms
In 2004, Theresa Snow piloted the first gleaning project at Pete’s Greens, wanting to offer more hands-on educational opportunities about local farms and agriculture. In 2005, Theresa and Jen O’Donnell co-founded Salvation Farms with the mission of increasing awareness, appreciation and access to local food. They wanted a professional model of gleaning that could be replicated statewide, fostering food security while serving communities and farms. As the success of the program became evident, the gleaning project grew and incorporated more farms, volunteers, and benefiting food banks, pantries, schools, retirement communities and other nutritionally-insecure groups. In the first three years, 88,000 pounds of food surplus were salvaged, harvested, and distributed from more than 2 dozen area farms. Salvation Farms also began offering classes and workshops through recipient food access sites to complement the gleaning project.
Partnering with Food Distributors
In 2008, Theresa and Salvation Farms joined the Vermont Food Bank to expand their gleaning program. New relationships with farmers and food access sites helped inspire more gleaning initiatives, and over the next three years more than 1 million pounds of food were gleaned from over 100 farms statewide. Looking to further expand their influence, Theresa and Salvation Farms set off in an independent direction in 2011. To better advise and aid developing gleaning programs around the state, they established the Vermont Gleaning Collective. This year, five different gleaning initiatives will participate in the Collective, receiving professional and experiential advice. Salvation Farms also published Vermont Fresh, a handbook of fresh fruit and vegetables, which was distributed to over 150 food access sites.
The Birth of the Commodity Project
In 2012, Salvation Farms began the piloting of a commodity project. As the Gleaning Collective grew, they encountered volumes of fresh food too large to be utilized by food access sites in one area (lacking labor, processing ability, and distribution). In response to this need, Salvation Farms spearheaded a research project focused on flash freezing, a method of minimally processing produce for donation to local institutions such as schools and hospitals. The project then moved to Vermont’s Southeast State Correctional Facility, setting up a raw packing plant in an empty building there. Salvation Farms then recruited prisoners from the Vermont Offender Work Program to clean and pack produce. Over 70,000 lbs of potatoes were packed up and delivered to food access sites in 2012. The success of this endeavor resulted in the birth of the Vermont Commodity Project.
The Commodity project is designed to support, rather then compete with, local agriculture. Food is gleaned and processed by the Vermont Offender Work Program, and made available to institutions such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes who want access to local food at commodity prices. The institutions commit to a sourcing agreement, pledging two things: to secure Vermont Commodity products with dollars not already committed to local food purchases, and to channel the savings from their involvement toward additional local food purchases. The benefits are threefold:
- Institutions with little previous access to local food get it at an affordable price
- Farmers benefit from gleaning and the institutional agreement to buy local food
- Work Program participants engage in meaningful work helping the community
Salvation Farms Today & the Future of the Commodity Project
The Commodity Project has continued at the SE State Correctional Facility this year, gleaning and packing potatoes, winter squash, onions, carrots and apples for hungry Vermonters. Vermont Offender Work Program participants spent several days at High Mowing Seeds this fall, harvesting 6800 lbs of squash and 460 lbs of peppers, which were processed at the Vermont Food Venture Center due to lack of equipment at the SE State Facility. The current goal of the Vermont Commodity Program is expand and renovate the processing building at the SE State Facility, increasing the capacity to receive, process and pack donated and gleaned produce, engaging more inmate labor and feeding more Vermonters. The State of Vermont has invested thousands of dollars in labor, equipment, and materials for the current clean/pack room. Salvation Farms must now raise $120,000 for additional construction and expansion. The initial goal is to raise $40,000 by January 1st, 2014 so construction can begin, and over $5,000 has been raised so far. If you’d like to contribute, please visit Salvation Farms’ crowd-funding page: www.tinyurl.com/help-sf
Salvation Farms serves as an innovative model for capturing surplus food and feeding local communities. The growth potential of such a program is virtually unlimited, but partnership is the essential ingredient for success. High Mowing Organic Seeds is proud to have a relationship with Salvation Farms and our local community. While we hope to see the program grow in Vermont, we also hope it will inspire similar projects across the nation. Regardless of your perspective - a gleaning program working within the local community; a hungry family hoping for access to local food; farmers interested in utilizing surplus from their fields; offenders hoping to do something meaningful with their sentences; or a community member interested in food sovereignty and stronger communities - we can all see the benefits of working together.
Please visit Salvation Farms’ website for more information: http://salvationfarms.org