In 2012, The John Merck Fund Board made a $425,000 investment in the Fair Food Network’s Fair Food Fund-Northeast. The Fund was established to help fill the financing gap that many smaller-scale sustainable farmers, food hubs, processors, distributors and other food entrepreneurs face as they seek to grow their businesses. The Fair Food Fund provides financing and business assistance to food enterprises in the Northeast that connect small and mid-size farms with markets for local, sustainably grown food. Through associated business development technical assistance services, Fair Food Fund-Northeast is also helping to build a pipeline of investment-ready enterprises and providing a vehicle for funders looking to make a meaningful difference in the region’s food system. To date, the Fund has raised over $5 million in committed funds and provided financing to New England-based businesses Northern Girl, DAHlicious, and the Urban Farm Fermentory.
Vermont Creamery has made artisan cheeses and specialty dairy products since 1984, and its popular brand has helped put Vermont on the map among cheese connoisseurs. As its sales increased, however, Vermont Creamery found it increasingly difficult to source goat’s milk in-state; by 2011, the company was sourcing less than half of its milk from Vermont producers, importing the remainder from Ontario and Michigan.
In 2012, The John Merck Fund joined philanthropic partners, The Castanea Foundation and the High Meadows Fund, to form Evergreen Partners, L3C, committing $300,000 to the partnership to help finance Vermont Creamery’s establishment of the Ayers Brook Goat Dairy as a model commercial goat dairy on a former cow dairy in Randolph, Vermont. Vermont Creamery and Evergreen Partners share a vision for an environmentally sustainable and economically vibrant goat dairy industry in Vermont that will help conserve and protect the working landscape, as well as foster agricultural economic development opportunities throughout the state and the region. The two entities also share the goal of ensuring Ayers Brook serves as a teaching venue for goat dairy farmers by providing on-site training opportunities for students from Vermont schools and colleges. The farm supports best management practices for the production of fluid goat’s milk, and efforts to improve the genetic quality and quantity of dairy goats by offering high-quality replacement stock to the region’s farms.
Shifting just 5% of New England public schools’ $149.8 million annual food budget to purchases of regionally sourced foods would generate $7.5 million additional dollars for the region’s farm economy.
Farm to Institution New England (FINE) is a six-state network of over 300 nonprofit, public and private entities collaborating to strengthen the region’s food system by increasing the amount of New England-grown and processed food served in our region’s schools, hospitals, colleges and other institutions. Increasing the demand for regionally-grown food will create incentives for more viable food and farm enterprises that provide jobs and support a strong rural economy. It will also create better access to more affordable, healthier and diverse types of New England foods.
In April 2015, FINE hosted its inaugural Farm to Institution Summit, which brought over 600 leaders in the regional farm-to-institution field together for an unprecedented three-day networking and education gathering. In addition to local leaders in farm-to-institution programs, the regional network’s influence was enough to attract the US Department of Agriculture and large food suppliers such as Sodexo and Sysco to the summit.
Regional food supply chains are complicated, which is why FINE also developed the Shared Metrics Initiative to assess the impact that food-to-institution efforts are having across the supply chain. This new web dashboard shares data from 982 schools, 105 colleges, 38 hospitals and 56 food distributors, and is quickly becoming a model that other regional and national food systems are looking to adopt.
FINE is a model of how to encourage regional food systems to shift toward local, sustainable and healthy foods by using the power of the marketplace, and they are a critical part of The John Merck Fund’s Regional Food Systems Program.
“If you really want to study neurodevelopment, you have to study it in the brain, not just in a culture dish.”
Also pictured above: Dr. Meng Li.
In 2015, The John Merck Fund awarded grants to Xinyu Zhao, PhD, and Anita Bhattacharyya, PhD, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Waisman Center, to explore cutting edge genetic treatments for Fragile X syndrome. Fragile X syndrome is an intellectual disability that affects one in 4,000 males and one in 8,000 females, and causes learning difficulties, hyperactivity, social anxiety, hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, and autism and autism-related behaviors.
Just one single gene on the X chromosome, when shut off, causes Fragile X syndrome, and Xinyu and Anita are combining their expertise to find ways to reactivate this gene. While previous researchers have conducted their studies on mice, our grantees’ work will use human stem cells in order to draw more accurate conclusions about Fragile X syndrome treatments. Using a new genetic editing tool, they will insert a “reporter gene” allowing them to identify when new drugs succeed in reactivating the gene that causes Fragile X syndrome. Xinyu will also take stem cells and transplant them into mouse brains to more effectively study brain development and drug treatment.
JMF’s grant to Xinyu and Anita is part of our developmental disabilities Translational Research Program – supporting research with the potential for immediate impact on people with developmental disabilities and their families.
Both researchers have a long history of novel research in Fragile X syndrome treatments. Xinyu Zhao, PhD, and her research lab focus on the molecular mechanisms involved in neural stem cells and brain development to in order to treat neurological disorders and injuries. Anita Bhattacharyya, PhD, and her lab use stem cells to research Down and Fragile X syndromes with the hope of developing therapies to address these genetic developmental disabilities. Xinyu and Anita, along with The John Merck Fund, believe that this study will advance our understanding of Fragile X syndrome and open the door to future treatments.