The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has leased its mobile flash freezer unit to Middlebury’s Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center.
The school plans to use the unit to process local produce for the Addison County Food Shelf. But first, students at the career center plan to design a mobile processing unit to pair with the freezer.
Many Addison County farmers donate their "seconds" - produce that doesn’t meet wholesale standards - to the food shelf. But because all of those carrots and tomatoes are fresh they don’t have a long shelf life.
Gretchen Cotell was working as local food coordinator for HOPE, Addison County's non-profit poverty relief organization. When she saw that the state was looking for a new organization to take over the flash freezer unit, she immediately saw a use for the vehicle.
The flash freezer is currently housed in a garage at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, where Cotell now works.
"If there’s so much produce that you can’t keep up with getting that fresh produce out to people," Cotell said. "That’s where we were hoping to [use] the flash freezer.”
Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center Director Lynn Coale says the career center is part of a group that’s trying to get more local food into institutions.
Coale says a produce packaging facility has been under discussion for some time, but there are some challenges.
“If you have a big facility built, like a food hub," Coale said. "What do you with all that infrastructure through the winter?”
That’s why mobile units, which can be weatherized and parked outside, make sense.
Coale says typically the produce needs processing before it’s frozen.
“The product comes in here on a conveyor belt, comes across this fan and is dried, and once it’s dried it gets put on these sheets and into the flash freezer,” he explained.
“The biggest issue with this unit is because it’s fairly labor intensive." Coale said. "It doesn’t have good flow and it doesn’t have any packaging, you don’t have any washing facility, you don’t have any peeling facility. I think we can make this more useful but we have to pair it with a mobile processing plant.”
The center’s engineering and design students are planning to turn a donated bus into the mobile processing unit, which will wash, peel and blanch vegetables. The bus and freezer can be brought to a farm where volunteers and students can prepare the food for long-term storage.
The Hannaford Career Center has experience: They’ve already created a mobile slaughter unit that processed 650 pounds of chicken this summer.
Coale says students are learning how to work in high-quality food manufacturing, while also performing community service.