On May 17, Rhode Island released its new five-year Food Strategy Plan, which is built around five action goals:
1. alleviate food insecurity and hunger throughout the state;
2. make food production more accessible;
3. create and sustain markets for Rhode Island food products;
4. promote environmental sustainability; and
5. support an economic climate friendly to food-related businesses.
The plan has been a goal for the state since 2011, when JMF grantee the Rhode Island Food Policy Council was founded. Since then, state leaders and local innovators have developed many initiatives to support food producers and provide more opportunities for all Rhode Islanders to access healthy food. A year ago, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo hired Susan Anderbois as Director of Food Strategy, the first position of its kind in the country.
Rhode Island’s food sector supports over 60,000 local jobs, and generated $2 billion in sales for restaurants in 2016. However, only 1 percent of the food consumed by state residents is harvested locally and 35 percent of waste is made up of food and compostable material. Moreover, 12 percent of Rhode Islanders are considered “food insecure.”
The Rhode Island Food Policy Council is creating a series of multimedia stories to bring the reality of what it’s like to work in, and be fed by, Rhode Island’s food system day to day. The first story features fantastic interviews with dairy farmers in the state, who are being squeezed economically, and the second features senior citizens visited by the mobile food truck Food on the Move, which makes fresh, local produce available to those facing food insecurity.
“I feel such optimism about our state’s food strategy, [and] we need everyone’s energy and ideas,” said Janet Coit, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM). “My most treasured traditions involve food; for example, summer doesn’t start for me until I go strawberry picking with my daughter, Nina. Today, I think we will look for an outcome where every Rhode Islander will have those experiences and have an opportunity to eat healthy, local food.”
“Milk with Dignity will bring about a new day for dairy workers. Ben & Jerry’s is just the beginning. Company by company, we the workers—whether parents working to provide for their children, or youth dreaming of a brighter future—will transform this industry and win our human rights.” –Enrique Balcazar, Migrant Justice Farm Worker Member*
Migrant Justice was formed in 2009 in response to the death of a young Vermont dairy farm worker by a diverse alliance of farm workers and concerned Vermonters, with the goal of allowing farm workers the opportunity to gather, discuss community problems, and envision solutions and plans for action.
In 2014, Migrant Justice’s members conducted a survey of 200 of the estimated 1,200-1,500 immigrant farm workers in the Vermont dairy industry, and found that a variety of abuses were surprisingly common. For example, 40% were paid below Vermont minimum wage, 29% worked seven or more hours in a row without a break, and 15% had insufficient heat in their housing. Migrant Justice’s members converted these violations into solutions by creating the Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct, which defines the human rights essential to a dignified workplace and fair housing.
To place these abuses in a larger context, Migrant Justice next addressed the corporate structure of the dairy industry and traveled to Florida to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to learn about their Campaign for Fair Food. Through legally binding agreements with fourteen major fast food and supermarket corporations—including McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and Walmart—the tomato workers of the CIW require companies to buy from tomato growers that follow a farm worker-authored code of conduct and pay a bonus that reaches workers.
The five elements of Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program are adapted from the Fair Food Program: the code of conduct mentioned above; farm worker education; a third party body that monitors, enforces, and audits farmer compliance; economic relief provided to both farm workers and farmers; and a legally binding agreement that defines the program as an enforceable contract under the law.
In December 2014, Migrant Justice’s leadership invited Ben & Jerry’s to become the first company to join Milk with Dignity after years of educating the company about the challenges farm workers face in their supply chain. Because Ben & Jerry’s has distinguished itself for its commitment to social justice and high standards for sourcing ingredients in its world famous ice cream, workers hoped the company would be a proactive champion of the Milk with Dignity Program.
Ben & Jerry’s is also important to Migrant Justice because it purchases 100% of its cream in the Northeast from St. Albans Cooperative farms where many (if not the majority) of Vermont’s farm workers are employed. Further, from the beginning Vermont dairy workers have recognized that, in order for Milk with Dignity to be truly viable, buyers like Ben & Jerry’s would have to pay farmers a better price for their milk in order to offset costs of compliance due to unfair and volatile conditions in the dairy industry.
Although Ben & Jerry’s signed an Agreement to Cooperate on June 19, 2015, and they have participated in ongoing negotiations with Migrant Justice since then to hash out the details, the company has yet to finalize its participation by signing a legally binding agreement. Feeling exasperated by two full years of delayed action, Migrant Justice on June 17, 2017, led a 250-person pilgrimage through Vermont’s working rural landscapes with a national call to action for human rights, walking thirteen miles from Vermont’s State House to the Ben & Jerry’s plant in Waterbury. The march placed Milk with Dignity on the national center stage and piqued media interest from coast (Boston Herald) to coast (San Francisco Chronicle).
This day of action was supported by allies across the country, such as the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, who delivered a letter to Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim on behalf of the 1.4 million-member Protestant denomination calling on Ben & Jerry’s to join the Milk with Dignity Program. As Dr. Nelson states in this letter,
“I urge you, do not delay any longer. Every day is a day that farm workers continue to suffer, farms are stretched further, and your customers grow more impatient. Sign in fact what you have already agreed to in principle, so that these anticipated transformational gains in human rights and sustainability may become a reality in Vermont’s dairy industry.”
*Click here to read one of a Migrant Justice member’s personal story of his work on Vermont dairy farms and participation in creating the Milk with Dignity program.
The John Merck Fund is providing critical funding to the Wellspring Collaborative to develop a hydroponic greenhouse called Wellspring Harvest that will provide year-round local produce to institutions and commercial venues in western Massachusetts.
With JMF’s funds, Wellspring put together a detailed business plan, secured land, raised $900,000 in financing including $250,000 through a direct public offering, hired a skilled greenhouse grower and completed a site and building plan. Final site engineering and permits are in process, with construction to begin this spring. Wellspring also received a grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to research the feasibility of building an anaerobic digester to provide a renewable energy source for the greenhouse.
Wellspring’s mission is to create a network of worker-owned companies that provide on-the-job training and wealth creation opportunities for low-income residents of Springfield. The organization’s five-year goal is to create more than 100 jobs through ten worker-owned companies. Wellspring’s companies provide goods and services to the region’s anchor institutions: the hospitals, colleges, and universities that are the largest employers and purchasers in western Massachusetts.
Local anchor institutions joined with community, labor, and economic development organizations to form Wellspring in 2010. In December 2013, Wellspring Upholstery opened its doors as its first cooperative business. That company now has seven employees and carries out $225,000 of work a year for colleges and hospitals in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Old Window Workshop joined Wellspring in 2016 as a women-owned cooperative that restores historic windows.
Wellspring appreciated JMF’s willingness to invest in their innovative and long-term development project, and looks forward to demonstrating over the next couple of years that its urban, hydroponic greenhouse can provide a source of year-round local produce and employment, as well as making a significant contribution to the region’s sustainable food system. So far, Baystate Health, Big Y Supermarkets, and Springfield Public Schools have all committed to purchasing produce from the greenhouse when it becomes available.
The Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) has awarded Good Shepherd Food Bank $3 million for its Mainers Feeding Mainers program to purchase vegetables, fruits, and seafood from Maine producers and to distribute them to hunger relief programs across the state.
“Our farm partners are providing us with top quality, nutritious food for our neighbors in need,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank. “This funding will allow us to expand our work with Maine farmers, put money back into local communities, and provide healthier options to families that are having trouble putting food on the table. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
The Mainers Feeding Mainers program was initially established with private philanthropic dollars, including those from The John Merck Fund. The Fund for a Healthy Maine award will allow the program to grow and will provide a stable source of funding for several years.
Good Shepherd Food Bank, which currently contracts with 50 farms across the state, plans to increase to 80 farm partnerships in coming years. In 2015, it purchased 840,000 pounds from Maine farms and fisheries and distributed a total of 24 million pounds of food to Mainers through a network of 400 local partner agencies. The organization plans to increase purchasing from local sources steadily throughout the 3-year contract term, bringing that number to approximately 1.3 million pounds by 2018.
In the past decade, Vermont’s local food sector has boomed. Local food sales have increased 32%, food system employment has increased 11.6%, and local food purchases have increased by 6.9%. This success is due in part to the flourishing Farm to Plate network.
Vermont Farm to Plate launched in 2009, when legislation was signed tasking the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund with creating a ten-year strategic plan to do three things: increase economic development in the farm and food sector, create jobs in the farm and food economy, and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters. Since then, the Farm to Plate network has grown to encompass some 350 food system organizations and enterprises that participate in five working groups, six cross-cutting teams, and many task forces to carry out this plan.
The John Merck Fund has provided general operating support to Farm to Plate since 2012, supporting “backbone” functions such as the yearly network gathering in November and their groundbreaking data visualization work that allows them to track progress towards 2020 goals and host an interactive, online atlas of food system stakeholders. JMF also supports relationship building and collaboration between Farm to Plate staff and their peers doing food system planning and implementation in other New England states.
This coming year, VSJF will be continuing their core work, as well as honing their communications and outreach strategy, launching a “buy local” campaign, and providing in-depth support to vegetable and meat producers hoping to enter the wholesale marketplace.
One of the reasons for Farm to Plate’s success has been the visionary and collaborative leadership of VSJF Executive Director Ellen Kahler. In October 2015, Ellen received the first-ever Con Hogan Award, which is given to a Vermont leader for their deep community involvement, generosity, enthusiasm, collaborative approach, and focus on data and outcomes.
*See Farm to Plate’s latest annual report for more information.
The John Merck Fund and our grantees in the Regional Food Systems Program were pleased to be featured in an article from Inside Philanthropy.
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.