Our 2016 Vermont Food Loss Study helped us measure the reality and the opportunity of edible crops going unsold and uneaten in our state — and we concluded our findings with a recommendation for how Vermont might address that opportunity:
“14.3 million pounds of vegetables and berries are lost each year in Vermont. They are either left unpicked in the fields, or picked but neither sold nor donated. In order to capture this large amount of food loss, a robust ‘food loss management’ plan needs to be implemented in Vermont with the farmer at its core. This plan needs to expand market opportunities for farmers, compensate farmers for the foods they produce, and support larger-scale, professionalized gleaning, food rescue, and farm surplus management operations that strengthen farms and the regional food system.”
The compass guiding our work and programs has always pointed toward this vision of a robust farm surplus management system with the farmer at its core — and yet it is a satisfying feeling to be able to report out on events and activities that specifically move us closer toward that vision!
After weeks of active planning, months of mulling over the possibilities, and years of working toward this conversation — Salvation Farms, in partnership with Vermont Farm to Plate, recently hosted Vermont’s first Surplus Crop Forum. Nearly 40 representatives from across the region’s food system came to Burlington on May 10th, some from hours away, some from down the road, and all dedicating a full workday to focus on the question of how to bring more surplus crops into institutional meal programs (at prisons, schools, nursing homes and hospitals, to name a few.)
Attendees included food service professionals representing a wide range of institutional meal programs, along with workers in the charitable food system, people with expertise in farmer co-ops and running distribution networks, and farmers themselves. Our goal is to use the conversation that buzzed around the forum’s central question — how to move more surplus into institutions — to inform the development of a Vermont Surplus Crop Management Plan.
We were honored to have a special guest open the forum: Deputy Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Alyson Eastman. She voiced support for “creatively exploring more approaches to meeting our state’s food needs…through utilizing the food resources existing on Vermont farms that don’t currently make it to the marketplace.” Eastman concluded her remarks with hope that “it can be a win-win for Vermont producers, our institutional markets, and our local consumers.” (Watch her full remarks in the video below.)
Salvation Farms and Farm to Plate staff framed the day. Theresa Snow presented current global, national, regional, and statewide goals for reducing food waste/loss. Theresa showed data on the supply of surplus crops, institutional demand for fresh produce, and barriers to connecting abundance with need. She also described Salvation Farms’ vision for a robust surplus crop management plan that includes expanded market opportunities for farmers (who are compensated for the foods they produce) and large-scale, professional gleaning and food rescue operations that strengthen farms and the regional food system.
Jake Claro of Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund provided context for Farm to Plate’s role in the day, recalling how surplus crops were the topic of a lively deep-dive session at the 2016 Farm to Plate Network gathering. The themes of that session inspired him and Abbey Willard of the Agency of Agriculture to pursue the concept of exploring more ways to use surplus — leading them to become two key supports for Salvation Farms in planning the forum.
The day involved a comprehensive strategy session to identify the assumptions, obstacles, risks, opportunity, and benefits to incorporating surplus crops into Vermont’s institutional meal programs. Institutional representatives and farmers offered their specific perspectives throughout afternoon panels.
● General sense of wanting to recover value of “lost” crops and importance of feeding our community
● Knowing our state has a wealth of know-how, enthusiasm, and potentially many of the tools needed
● Very few viable business models to learn from; Vermont can and should pioneer
● Importance of making it economically worthwhile for farmers
● Acknowledging that receiving surplus requires flexibility, creativity, and staff capacity
● Reminding that institutions have diverse labor, equipment, procurement processes, and product needs
● Concerns include displacing farms’ existing markets, inadequate price points, prohibitive rules at institutions
● Opportunities include the immense community, health, and economic benefits of integrating more local food
● More inquiry needed to determine how minimally processed (peeled, cut and frozen, canned, or dehydrated) or value-added product may remove some barriers of labor and infrastructure or help overcome some concerns of seasonality, blemishes, or uncertainty of mixed varieties
● A broker is vital to aggregate crops, convey availability, and match crop supply (raw or processed) to diverse needs of institutions
● A PR and marketing campaign will help brand these products and/or the Vermont Commodity Program
● Educational and ease-of-use campaigns will help adjust client/consumer expectations and increase institutions’ receptivity
Working with the Farm to Plate Network, our next step is to form a stakeholder group to advise the development of a Vermont Surplus Crop Management Plan. To our knowledge, there are no strategic plans on a statewide level of this kind; we are excited to be making strides toward the first. There are few preexisting models to work from, but we are secure in our conviction that our state would greatly benefit from a strategic plan to manage our state’s un-marketed crops. We are honored to have the chance to continue helping to lead this conversation.
Special thanks to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets who supported the planning of the Vermont Surplus Crop Forum, to all who dedicated their day to the forum, and to the day’s sponsors: Main Street Landing, Have Your Cake Catering, and Skinny Pancake.