By Julia Purdy
RUTLAND—Wednesday, Dec. 21, was the final day of the 2016 season for eligible households to pick up a hefty shopping tote stuffed with fresh, local farm produce at the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center at 251 West Street in Rutland, site of the regular Rutland winter farmers’ market. For the past two years, VFFC has been sponsoring Health Care Share (HCS), an innovative program that brings seasonal vegetables, fruits and fresh milk to low-income households. Although the farmers’ market was mostly quiet on a cold day, the back corner of the barn-like building hummed with friendly activity.
Last week, colorful totes lined a table for pickup. They contained carrots, winter squash, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, applesauce from Yoder Farm in Danby, milk from the Farm & Wilderness dairy farm in Plymouth, and the famous Gilfeather turnip, named the official state vegetable in April 2016 at the urging of students in the Wardsboro elementary school. (Developed originally in Wardsboro by farmer John Gilfeather, the century-old turnip variety is one of Vermont’s heirloom vegetables.)
As folks stopped by to pick up their “share,” Grace Davy was rattling the pans in the on-site kitchen, using frozen corn-on-the-cob in a stick-to-your-ribs vegetable soup, cooking up a panful of the mild-flavored Gilfeather turnip, and baking a hearty cornbread made with Vermont-grown buckwheat flour. Sample cups of fresh, crisp sauerkraut were also available.
Davy does the Everyday Chef program for the Rutland Area Farm & Food Link (RAFFL). She said that each HCS pickup day, a different volunteer takes over the kitchen, putting together a light supper and samples cooked with that day’s vegetable or fruit selections. Flyers on the information table offered Davy’s winter vegetable soup recipe and detailed instructions for preserving and using sweet corn through the winter.
RAFFL supports the HCS program, along with several other organizations with similar missions. They include Hunger Free Vermont, the Vermont Food Bank, Smokey House Center in Danby, the Shrewsbury Institute for Agricultural Education (SAGE) and the Farm to Plate Network.
Galen Miller, a Shrewsbury resident, works with SAGE. She was assisting on pickup day, answering questions, providing quiet activities for kids, and seeing the elderly to their cars across the icy parking lot. Miller has taken part since HCS’ inception.
According to Heidi Lynch, who coordinates the HCS program for VFFC, there are 360 individual members (including children) in the HCS program. The program functions like a regular community-supported agriculture (CSA) cooperative, with one unique and important difference. Participants are Vermonters who are not getting enough to eat or need to remedy a nutritional deficiency and whose doctor enrolls them in the HCS program by writing a “prescription” for locally produced, nutritious whole foods. Participating doctors in the Rutland area include primary care physicians at the Community Health Center in Rutland, the Community Health Team at Rutland Regional Medical Center, and the Green Mountain Family Medicine addiction recovery program.
Lynch, a native of Rutland who worked as an Americorps volunteer with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC), said that VYCC developed the unique farm-share model that is being piloted in Rutland. Though better known for its land stewardship programs, VYCC also operates its Farm and Food Program through its own working farm in Richmond. The program supplies the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin and UVM Medical Center. In the summer, VYCC crews help pack vegetables at farms for the program.
“By aggregating from existing farms you can take the program anywhere,” said Lynch. She explained that Health Care Share sources all its foods from beginning farmers, creating a niche market for them.
Each share is free to the enrollee. Three years of program funding from Rutland Regional Medical Center’s Bowse Health Trust in the amount of $100,000 began in 2015; the program is now ending its second year. Ben & Jerry’s is also contributing funds for 2017. Shares may be sponsored at $250 per share by “cultivating members,” and fundraisers are held. Health Care Share has raised over $150,000 since its inception in Rutland, Lynch said.
Back at the food center, Frank Wallace told the Mountain Times, “This program is one of the best.” Wallace and his partner Dolly Cole are food stamp recipients but have found personal fulfillment in the HCS program. They call themselves “ambassadors” for the program and are on hand to welcome newcomers, explain and “sell” the program to them, and direct them to where they can convert their SNAP food stamps to “crop cash” for shopping at the farmers’ market.
The shares and community suppers are available for twelve weeks in the summer and one Wednesday per month in the winter, 3-6 p.m. The 2017 winter schedule is: Jan. 18, Feb. 15, March 15, April 19, and May 17.
For more information, contact vermontfarmersfoodcenter.org.