Nora Leccese is an Emerson National Hunger Fellow from the Congressional Hunger Center. She is working on a 5-month project to identify ways the charitable food system can collaborate with the local food system to make fresh food more accessible to low-income Vermonters.  She is focusing specifically on how the Vermont Foodbank could use the infrastructure of the Venture Center to minimally process fresh produce to reduce waste and provide more nutritious food to clients year round.

She grew up in Colorado, where she helped found Boulder Food Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues fresh produce that would otherwise go to waste from grocery stores and restaurants and transports it by bicycle to agencies that serve hungry, homeless and low-income folks.

This is a guest post from Nora:

Nora Leccese, Emerson National Hunger Fellow

Photo courtesy of @VPRnet. Left to right: Ruby Dale-Brown, Bethany Dunbar and Nora Lecesse fill pie shells with surplus fresh pumpkin puree for the Hardwick Area Food Bank.
Photo by Herb Swanson

Over the past couple of months, I have been surprised over and over again at what Vermont has to offer. I am new to rural life, and so it wasn’t just the proliferation of roadside vegetable stands and grange halls filled with Contra Dancers that struck me, it was Vermonters’ willingness to share the bounty that this land provides. Salvation Farms estimates that there is 2 million pounds of agricultural surplus grown in the state each year, and heroic gleaning efforts capture about one-fourth of that harvest at the moment. Farmers are willing to give, gleaners are willing to glean, but local gleaned produce sometimes goes bad before it is used by clients at food pantries.

Food pantry clients often report that common surplus crops like root vegetables and squash are time-consuming to prepare, require cooking knowledge, and can be difficult to cut up if the client has arthritis, as so many elders do. One way to overcome this barrier is to process and preserve fresh local food; that means wash, chop, bag, and freeze vegetables so that they are easier to use and last longer on pantry shelves. This is a wonderful service that will expand access to produce for low-income Vermonters around the state, and we have the infrastructure and the knowledge to do it! By the time I leave, I will produce a plan for how to process produce with the Center for an Agricultural Economy and overcome logistical and cost barriers that have impeded the project so far.

One interesting aspect of this project has been to survey the available infrastructure of the local food system and try to match it with needs in the charitable system. My work has shown me a glimpse of the sophisticated local food network that spans from production to distribution to waste management, and I have had the opportunity to meet with key players in those worlds to talk about opportunities for collaboration. I have interviewed food pantry and congregate meal site managers about what kinds of processed produce would be most useful, and sat down to eat and talk with clients at some of those meals. Everyone I’ve encountered has been incredibly dedicated to expanding healthy food access and thoughtful about the role of local food in that work.

Another arm of this project has been contacting food sourcing directors across the country (and around the world: I spoke last week with a representative from the Egyptian Food Bank!) to discover their best practices for food processing and gather information for how we might build a program here. It has been fascinating to see how different regions handle different varieties of agricultural surplus; I’ve spoken with folks in California who distributed 1 million pounds of avocados through their network partners last year, and a food bank in Tennessee that would like to preserve green beans but can’t compete with big companies like Green Giant on price, and a food bank in Oklahoma that saw donations of dry goods declining and decided to start manufacturing their own line of products to make up for it.

Each region has its own unique challenges, but one unifying factor has been prohibitive cost. Food bank processing projects have overcome this barrier by creating innovative partnerships with workforce development organizations and generous businesses. I am confident that with a little creativity, the Vermont Foodbank and the Center for an Agricultural Economy can create a food processing partnership that reduces waste, provides job training, and expands access to the nutritious local produce for which Vermont is famous. There is ample opportunity to create these sorts of partnerships here in Vermont.

We appreciate Nora’s work on behalf of Vermonters in need and we look forward to her final report!