An innovative program first launched by the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps in Richmond is expanding to other parts of Vermont to make it easier for needy families to get locally grown fruits and vegetables.
With obesity and diabetes on the rise, experts are pushing healthier diets. But fresh produce can be pricey and hard to get for many families.
In Rutland, participating farmers start to arrive at the Vermont Farmers Food Center around 10 a.m. every Wednesday.
They unload large bins of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. “Wow, look at that eggplant!” says a volunteer who grabs one of the bins. “They are so beautiful. I didn’t even know they had these on their farm.”
“Four different types of eggplant,” says farmer Kris Harmelink proudly.
Sixteen-year-old Antony Strangeway, one of the teens that work with the program, grabs a green pepper and takes a bite making a loud crunch, "Mmmmm, so good," he says, laughing.
Heidi Lynch looks on and smiles. She’s coordinating the Rutland Health Care Share, a pilot program being run out of the warehouse-like structure that houses Rutland’s winter farmers market.
Thanks to a $100,000 three-year grant from Rutland Regional Medical Center’s Bowse Health Trust, Lynch says they’ve been able to offer 75 local families a summer’s worth of fresh produce, for free.
“We worked with primary care providers to identify families and individuals who are facing food insecurity and health issues like obesity, heart disease and things like that,” says Lynch.
She says they also wanted the program to help the local agricultural community, so they specifically contracted with new farmers, to help them grow their business.
Ryan Yoder of Danby is one of them. He slides the door of his van open to unload a big bin of bright orange carrots. “We bring vegetables every week. I brought 120 pounds of carrots to be divvied up for the health care share, this time around. It’s every week for 12 weeks this summer and it’s going great.”
Yoder will earn $4,000 for his produce — guaranteed sales he says he and the other farmers really appreciate.
Four local teenagers have benefited from the program as well. They’re part of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and have been overseen by Connor Magnuson.
Magnuson says the teens spent part of each week this summer working on the various farms. On Wednesdays they worked at the Vermont Farmer’s Food Center in Rutland unloading the produce and transferring it to 75 reusable grocery bags arranged on long tables.
Eighteen-year-old Tessie McDonnell of Rutland has never worked on a farm before, but says she’s loved being outdoors this summer and says seeing how much the families appreciate the food has meant a lot. “It feels great,” says McDonnell. “The families are really grateful to be part of this program and for me,” she says, “it’s been a really good learning experience.”
McDonnell and the other teens go into action after another one of the farmers drops off cucumbers and explains how many should go into each bag.
Later in the afternoon, after all the bags are prepped, people like Amanda Lawson of Chittenden pick up their shares.
Lawson and her husband have six children, two of whom are foster kids they hope to adopt.
Amanda says before they took part in the farm share they might have had fresh vegetables once or twice a week. “That’s if we were lucky,” she says, shaking her head. “Now, we’re probably four nights a week.”
She says her family qualified for the program because of the foster care they provide. She calls it fabulous and says she loves that the foods they’re eating are locally grown. “It’s amazing," she says. "It’s beautiful. Every time we walk in, the kids all go in as well, and they’re so excited to see all the bags laid out.
Lawson says there’s a sample table that the kids run to and she appreciates that there’s usually someone on hand to explain how to prepare the produce and give out recipes.
“And when we get home with our bag, it’s almost like unwrapping a gift, you know? They’re so excited.” She says of her kids, “they want to see what’s in it and then, what are we going to make with this? You know, it’s usually so colorful.”
But do her kids actually eat the vegetables Lawson prepares?
“Absolutely,” she says. “They love them and I kind of try to disguise some of them. So if we’re getting kale, if I cut it up really small and sauté it - they don’t really know what they’re eating, but they’re getting it.”
While Heidi Lynch says she’s heard a lot of positive feedback from families who are taking part in the program, she admits it’s too early to tell what if any kind of impact the added produce is having on their health.
Paul Feenan, food and farm director for the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps in Richmond, says they’ve been running a similar program with UVM Medical Center and Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin since 2012.
Feenan says survey data they’ve gathered from those taking part each year is promising. “Participants have been telling us that they’re making healthier food choices as a result of the program both during the season and after the season,” says Feenan. And he says participating families say their kids are trying more vegetables than they did before and that that the family is purchasing more fresh vegetables on their own.