Connecting with local food

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MANCHESTER — Liz Ruffa, of East Dorset, is passionate about promoting sustainable agriculture in Vermont.

What started as efforts to take the pressure off parents for lunch one day a week at Maple Street School led her and Beth Vickers, of Winhall, to establish Northshire Grows, a nonprofit dedicated to building links between the Vermonters and the people who grow and produce their food. It's goals include economic development for Vermont agriculture and training the next generation of Vermont's food industry workers and entrepreneurs, as well as teaching kids where their food comes from.

Ruffa is a big believer in the power of farm to school and what it can do for young minds.

"The better kids eat and the more time they have outside with their hands in dirt, it is proven that they learn better, they can focus better, their behavior improves, there are less nurse visits when they get sick and they get back to school quicker. It is just is a good thing," she said.

The organization now counts a network of 800 educators, farmers, food-related businesses, consumers and like-minded folks across Vermont.

For six months, the initiative will have a home at 5081 Main St., across from Adams Park, the home of the Manchester Farmers Market. The non-profit is leasing the building from owner Ross Powers, with the hopes of extending that if things work well. A commercial-grade kitchen that food producers can use is in Ruffa's plans; so is use of the upstairs of the brick and timber building as a farm to school classroom and meeting space.

Ruffa can envision the building as a place "where farmers and members of the food and farm economy can spend time with kids and explain to them what they do, what their business model is about."

From its new home, Northshire Grows distributes curated CSA shares from Three Pigs Farm in Salem N.Y. and sells value-added goods from a revolving cast of local food producers. On the menu are prepared salads from Earth Sky Time Farm, lamb and pork from Merck Forest, goat cheese from West River Creamery in Londonderry and several products from Yoder Farm in Danby, to name a few. Maple Street School teacher Conor Welch is also on hand, selling coffee he roasts himself a pound at a time in his barn.

Sarah Wohlleb, who owns Three Pigs Farm with her husband, said Northshire Grows aligns with many of their beliefs.

"We're happy to have our food going to something that's promoting people getting more real food in their lives," she said.

It started three years ago as Ruffa and Vickers' plans to "rock this lunchbox," in Ruffa's words, at Maple Street School. The intent was to give parents a break on packing lunch one day a week, as the school does not have a cafeteria.

Three years later, participation grew from 80 kids to almost 120 this year, Ruffa said.

"It was pretty cool when you realized you were helping farms out, helping food producers out and stroking a check in the middle of march that they wouldn't otherwise be getting."

Northshire Grows then launched a CSA program this past fall, with the intent of improving on the concept by eliminating some of the repetition with unfamiliar vegetables that scares some people away from taking part.

"We came up with an idea that for lack of better phrase was a Hippie Vermont Blue Apron," Ruffa said. Rather than source from one farm, she and Vickers sourced food from 20 farms and food producers and curated the offerings.

"Every two weeks for $40 we were passing on $35 worth of wholesale value — produce, meat, dairy, eggs, cheese, bread — and we supplied recipes as well," Ruffa said.

This summer, for a CSA share — $300 for a family — customers get 10 weeks of fresh locally-grown and locally-made food, and $50 of the proceeds go to promoting farm-to-school initiatives in the area.

"We're building our capacity to offer farm to school technical assistance and program offerings to all schools in the area," Ruffa said. "We help schools understand how to use this in their curriculum, in the cafeteria, and in the community. We're a resource and advocacy hub."

The hope, Ruffa said, is that education, awareness and economic opportunity can promote a brighter future for farmers and food producers in Southern Vermont.

"There's been a disconnect in the past couple decades, with people thinking that aisle 4 is where food comes from," she said. "Food education is a great way to get kids engaged, because it's fun and it tastes good and on top of that, it's project-based learning."

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000.

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