Strengthening Food Systems: VLT Responds to the Coronavirus

man in mask boxing food for COVID food box program

By Rachel Mullis

“When things are insecure, it’s not a bad idea to produce more food,” said Angus Baldwin as he deftly cut and bound flat-leaf parsley. “I wasn’t sure if we’d be selling or giving it away this year, but I figured there would be a need for it.”

Angus operates the nonprofit West Farm on VLT’s Brewster Uplands Conservation Trust property in Jeffersonville. The parsley was destined for the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, one of several partners Angus is working with this year to get healthy food in the hands of those who need it.

hands putting cucumber in box as part of coronavirus relief food box program

Since April, VLT has joined forces with community groups, volunteers, and farmers like Baldwin to help meet increasing demand at food shelters due to the pandemic and to offset food producers’ costs. This included doing more at VLT-owned properties, including Brewster Uplands, Pine Island, and Bluffside Farm.

At VLT’s Pine Island Community Farm in Colchester, a farm used by people who originally came to the U.S. as refugees, community garden access fees were waived and gardens were fertilized to cut down on the financial distress gardeners have experienced. VLT also introduced a “Freezers for Food Access” program that provides cost-share grants for 30 members to purchase freezers for food storage.

Shadir Mohamed is a Pine Island Community Leader who worked closely with VLT to facilitate communication on COVID-related safety measures. “We had a meeting at the beginning of the season and told everyone what we needed to do,” said Shadir. “We stopped sharing equipment. VLT installed handwashing stations. Now we’re using WhatsApp [messaging software] to communicate with members remotely.”

hands of community gardener holding plant at Pine Island Farm

At Bluffside Farm in Newport, VLT and Vermont Youth Conservation Corps acted fast to set aside a garden where volunteers can grow food for their neighbors. The project is a collaboration with ShiftMeals, a nonprofit started by The Skinny Pancake that provides healthy meals and gardens to people affected by the coronavirus. 

In the fall, VLT will donate most of Bluffside’s vegetables through the state’s charitable food system. The property serves as a distribution site for families who can no longer safely pick up their Health Care Share Program CSA at North Country Hospital.

Bluffside volunteer Marie A. Gagne Raboin notes that the work involved in growing and attending the garden has changed her perspective. “I found that the work brought great pleasure to me, satisfaction in a job well done knowing that this good food would feed many local families,” said Marie. “I have dirt under my fingernails but a happy feeling as I look over this beautiful garden space and the abundance of food that we, the volunteers, have grown.”

basket of kolrabi

VLT is also offering grants to those who farm on VLT-conserved land to ease the pandemic’s impact on farmers across the state. Grants are helping dairy farmers who are shifting from conventional methods or diversifying their operations and all who need to offset costs as they pivot to meet the needs of changing markets.

To date, VLT has funded $109,500 worth of grants to 55 farms. Farmers Ken and Joanne Leach received a transition grant to get licensed as a raw milk dairy. The Leaches had been considering the conversion from conventional milk processing for some time. The pandemic provided the opportunity: they noticed that people were seeking out local farms. Friends grew vegetable gardens. Neighbors inquired about purchasing milk fresh from the source.

While demand is high for their ultra-local product, startup costs have risen, too. Simple things like freezers and canning jars have become more expensive to purchase during the pandemic—if they’re available at all. “VLT was quick about providing the money,” said Ken. “Grants can be very lengthy, so it’s pretty neat how fast they have done a lot of really good things.”

“’How can we do more?’ That was the question we asked ourselves when the pandemic hit,” explained Nick Richardson, VLT ‘s President & CEO. “We decided to target our resources on food security and access—to grow more on conserved land and help farmers weather the storm.”