Despite the apparent availability of fresh, locally-grown produce in Windham County, Vermont, a large segment of the population there is still without access to locally-grown food, whether due to a perceived economic barrier or a lack of information. As a result, a divide still exists between farmers and those members of the community who stand to benefit the most from their products. This divide means farmers are not receiving the economic support from the community that they could be, and a large segment of the local population is going without fresh local vegetables and fruits in their diets.
Based on this community need, the mission of the “Bridging the Gap” project was to engage the local community with local farmers, thus bridging the divide between farmers and low-income members of the community. We sought to accomplish this mission through education and outreach to the community on the benefits of buying local, eating fresh food, and supporting local farmers and Farmers’ Markets.
Objectives of the community outreach initiative included the following:
o At least 4 separate printed educational materials will be designed
o 2,000 printed educational materials will be produced and distributed
o 4 demonstrations at the local Farmers’ Market will be held
o 4 workshops for youth groups will be held
o 2 workshops for adults will be facilitated
o 3 public events on the farm will be organized and held
o evaluation of the program will be completed
Objectives of the farm-share program were as follows:
o Four to six teens will be hired to take part in the program
o 10-12 low-income families will be selected as participants
o participants will receive a weekly share of fresh vegetables once a week
o participants will take part in 5 cooking classes
o evaluation of the program will be completed
The “Bridging the Gap” project is an offshoot of the University of Vermont Extension’s “Youth Horticulture Project” (YHP), a program that aims to build the life and job skills of at-risk youth through growing, marketing and donating vegetables. Young people in the program develop the vital skills of communication, teamwork, responsibility and problem-solving while discovering where their food comes from. They develop healthy lifestyle behaviors including engaging in physical activity through gardening and healthy eating. In the process, a productive community of youth and adults is created with a focus on growing and providing food to those in need and educating the community on the value of a regional food system.
Five teens that had already completed one season of work in the YHP program were selected to take part in the “Bridging the Gap” project. Supervised by one full-time staff member and one part-time staff member during eight weeks in the summer of 2007, the teens were paid eight dollars per hour, working 20 hours per week.
The teens played an active role in the planning and facilitation of both the small-scale farm-share program for low-income families as well as the broader community outreach and education initiative to increase local food consumption amongst the low-income community.
This report aims to evaluate the program in an effort to contribute our experience to the growing field of agriculture education initiatives. We hope that you may learn and benefit from both our challenges and successes.
Our methods entailed a 2-pronged approach: (1) a small-scale farm-share program for low-income families that engaged them with the source of their food and provided direct access to fresh produce, as well as the skills and knowledge to continue their connection with local food and local farms after the program; and (2) a broader initiative to educate and empower low-income members of the greater Brattleboro community through presentations, demonstrations, and printed materials on how to access locally grown food, as well as the benefits of incorporating fresh produce into their diets.
The project is an expansion of YHP and built upon our already established infrastructure, including a 1-acre vegetable farm/garden and associated equipment at UVM Extension in Brattleboro. Our roots in the community enabled us to build a coalition of community partners that helped to ensure the success of the program. We also assembled an advisory board that helped to guide the project.
Unique to the project is the fact that the mission was carried out by the youth workers in the program, specifically the teens who had previously participated in YHP’s “Summer Work & Learn” program, which teaches farming skills and imparts knowledge and values of land stewardship, community service, and the importance of healthy lifestyle choices. The project was undertaken by a group of returning youth who were already experienced with issues of farming, food systems and food security.
The project could not have succeeded without the help of community partners:
Early Education Services (EES) provides parents and children a variety of services, including Head Start, parent support groups, health and social services, and much more. The nutritionist at EES helped to identify and recruit families for the farm share program, and then planned and facilitated cooking classes for the farm share program. Her help was vital to the success of the farm share.
The Brattleboro Food Co-op is a member-owned supermarket that strives to provide the community with healthy foods at reasonable prices. The Co-op’s Education and Outreach Coordinator helped our teens formulate their outreach plans.
Deer Ridge Farm is a family owned and operated multi-use farm in the town of Guilford, Vermont. Operated organically since 1982, the farm has occupied a stand at the Brattleboro Area Farmers Market for many years. The co-owner of Deer Ridge Farm, also a Board Member of the Brattleboro Area Farmers Market, consulted on the project, advising the teens as they honed their outreach efforts.
The Brattleboro Area Farmers Market is one of Vermont’s premier markets, with over 50 vendors of agricultural products, crafts, exotic foods, home-grown, home cooked and handcrafted items. Recognizing that our efforts were promoting the participating farmers, board of the Farmers’ market provided us with free table space, which was essential to our outreach.
Outcomes of the public education and outreach at Brattleboro Farmers’ Market:
In addition to on-going informal evaluation, the youth developed a formal evaluation tool to assess the impact of their initiative. While conducting taste tests at the Farmers’ Market, the teens solicited feedback from the public using a small survey on whether their goals were being met through the taste testing. The results of this informal survey demonstarted that our “Local Food Taste Testing” table encouraged shoppers to buy locally grown food.
Overall, we consider this component of the program to have been very successful in that it gave the youth an opportunity to discuss the program with members of the community, and engage in dialogue surrounding the issues they were working to address. Feedback received from the public also suggests that the community was supportive of the initiative and that our work and presence at the Farmers’ Market had a positive impact in encouraging people to purchase food from local producers at the market, facilitating creative ideas on how to use the produce.
Outcomes of the Local Foods Taste Testing with “Summer Feeding Program” Sites:
Exit interviews were conducted with participants from the Clarke Canal day care center to evaluate the impact of the NOFA taste-testing initiative.
In post-program interviews with Summer Feeding Program participants, 100% remarked that they had tried a vegetable they had never tried before as a result of the program.
Post-program interviews also suggested that the lessons provided by the teens in our program had an impact in educating the Summer Feeding Program youths. Recalling a fun-fact about carrots, one 10-year-old taste tester said, “It’s important to eat vegetables because it helps you see in the night.” Another 11-year-old participant remarked, “It’s important to eat vegetables because it helps you grow healthy and strong.”
According to the interviews, the taste testers were also likely to share their experiences with family and friends. One 11-year-old participant shared, “I told my mom that we tried these peas and they were really sweet. I told my mom to buy them.” Another reported, “I told my mom that she should try eating vegetables more.”
Overall, the taste testing at Summer Feeding Program sites was a successful initiative, due in a large part to the strong community partnerships on which it was built. The programming was simple yet effective, and reached its goals of introducing low-income children within the Brattleboro community to fresh, local food. Due to the fact that children seem likely to share their experiences with family and friends, there is much to gain from educating children about local food from local farms, which may have a positive impact on the eating habits of their families.
Outcomes of the “Family Farm Share” program:
To evaluate the impact of the Farm Share program, we created an “exit interview” which was administered by a colleague at Early Education Services, the organization that administers the local Head Start program. When asked how the Farm Share and cooking classes affected how the participants and their families ate, each participant noted that the program increased the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables in their family’s diet. One participant noted, “If it weren’t for the Farm [Share] and the cooking classes we wouldn’t be eating as well.” Another participant said, “It increased the variety of veggies we eat as well as gave access to more different vegetables.” Another said, “We experienced a lot more variety and learned some new recipes. My daughter tried some new things that might not have been tried.”
In addition to participant appreciation of increased access to seasonal vegetables, the farm share families also noted that the cooking classes and recipes provided them with skills to prepare vegetables. One participant noted, “Great vegetables and recipes to help guide me with the vegetables.” Another participant said that the best things about the program were, “Getting more fresh produce [and] learning different ways to cook vegetables.” Another participant stated that the most beneficial parts of the program were “the fresh vegetables for a couple months,” and that “it gave me more ideas when cooking certain vegetables.”
The interviews also showed that participants appreciated the on-farm events. One noted that the most beneficial component of the program was “being able to go the farm, see where the vegetables are grown and see the staff who work there and the impact on the community.” Another participant reported that she appreciated “being introduced to new vegetable recipes and new people in the community.”
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
In addition to their direct engagement with both youth and adult members of the community, the teens in the program researched, designed, produced and distributed over 2,000 printed educational materials throughout the community. These educational materials included the following:
“A Tale of Two Carrots” was a brochure adapted with permission from the Intervale Education Center in Burlington, Vermont. Designed to educate consumers on the many differences between a sustainably and locally-grown vegetable and its factory-farmed counterpart grown thousands of miles away, this brochure was distributed at the Farmers’ Market in conjunction with the Local Food Taste Testing. They were also handed out by the teens in the program, along with an organic carrot, to passersby in downtown Brattleboro.
The Wednesday Farmers’ Market Brochure was developed to promote the vendors at the Wednesday Market, highlighting their unique products. This was distributed on the streets of Brattleboro during lunch hour on Wednesday to encourage people to visit the market. It was also made available at the more popular Saturday Farmers’ Market and at various tourist information spots in town.
We also produced a weekly “newsletter” for Farm Share participants, which included recipes, facts about vegetables, updates on the farm, and reminders to visit the Farmers’ Market and redeem food stamps there.
Overview of accomplishments
Education and Outreach
• Teens conducted five taste test demonstrations at the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market
• Teens prepared and distributed over 300 local food samples and 300 accompanied recipe cards within the community.
• Over 2,000 printed educational materials were designed, produced and distributed by teens.
• Seven youth workshops on local food were facilitated
Family Farm Share
• 12 low-income families were selected to participate in the program.
• Participants received a weekly share of fresh vegetables between July 2 and August 27, 2007.
• Participants took part in 5 cooking classes throughout the summer.
• 2 public events were organized on the farm.
For the “Family Farm Share” program, the teens took part in growing, harvesting and packing weekly farm shares providing 8-12 low-income families with locally-grown food.
One day out of each week was dedicated to the “Family Farm Share” program. This day was spent working on our 1-acre farm (which is shared with the other youth programs run by YHP), harvesting a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers for the farm share program, washing and recording the weights of the produce, transporting the vegetables to Early Education Services, the site of the weekly cooking class.
A collaborator with Early Education Services helped recruit 12 local families that would benefit most from the program. Once selected, the participants were invited to an Orientation Day on our farm where they participated in an interactive farm tour followed by a meal prepared by our teens using produce from the farm. The families were introduced to the Children’s U-pick Garden, a garden designated for these families full of produce the families could pick throughout the summer, including cherry tomatoes, string beans, herbs and flowers.
The families participated in weekly cooking classes led by the nutritionist for Early Education Services, using recipes that incorporated produce they would receive from our farm. Following the cooking classes, the teens assisted the families in packing their farm shares. In addition to the produce, each share included a weekly newsletter designed and produced by the teens, which included news and pictures from our farm and a vegetable of the week including nutrition facts and a recipe.
At the end of the program, participating families in the Farm Share program were invited to a celebration at the farm where they shared a meal with the teens and some of the community partners involved in the program. This provided another opportunity to engage these young mothers and their children with the source of the food they had been receiving throughout the summer.
As part of the community outreach initiative, the teens conducted local food “Taste Tests” at the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, preparing and distributing over 300 local food samples and 300 accompanied recipe cards within the community.
Every Wednesday during the program, the participating teens picked a recipe that incorporated local ingredients that were in season, and prepared the recipe at the UVM Extension office, and created recipe cards to hand out. They then brought a display table, along with the food they had prepared and the recipe cards, to the Farmers’ Market in Brattleboro, handing out samples, recipes, and engaging passersby in conversations about the benefits of buying locally-grown food. The youth distributed on average 60 food samples and 60 recipe cards per day.
Some quotes from enthusiastic taste testers at the market included, “Wow, I’m going to make this” and “I have beets, and now I know what to do with them.”
Also as part of the community outreach initiative, the participating teens provided weekly local food lessons and samples of locally-grown produce for low-income children at two NOFA “Summer Feeding Program” sites.
We ultimately decided that the teens in our program could have a greater impact facilitating workshops before youth groups as opposed to adults, both because they are looked up to by younger children and because their comfort level in front of kids is greater. Therefore we conducted more youth workshops than originally planned and less adult workshops.
For this area of the program, we partnered with Clarke Canal, a local day care and drop-in center serving low-income families. The teens in our program worked weekly with 30 area youths ranging in age from 2-18, providing a mini-lesson including fun facts about the vegetables. The teens then encouraged the youths at the center to try the vegetables, and to describe the taste or texture of the vegetable.
The teens also had the opportunity to work at Ledgewood, a local low-income housing site, where they conducted a nutrition education lesson and passed vegetables around, encouraging the approximately 25 children to try them. They visited the Ledgewood program twice over the course of the summer.
Thanks to our collaboration with Clark Canal, the children in that program went on a field trip to the Farmers’ Market to visit our teens at their taste-testing table. One of our teens led the group on a tour of the market, browsing the stalls, and stopping at our program’s taste-testing table where they sampled the recipe of the week, beet salad.
There seems to be a real potential for projects like “Bridging the Gap” to make a difference in increasing access among low-income people to fresh, locally-grown food, positively impacting not only those community members but local farmers as well. While the “Bridging the Gap” program was relatively small, and our reach limited, the impacts of expanding such a program could be significant.
For instance, the feedback from Farm Share participants showed the program made a real difference in their ability and willingness to access and incorporate fresh local foods into the diets of their families. This feedback was corroborated by a UCLA study* in January of 2008 that found vouchers permitting low-income women to shop at local farmers’ markets increase fruit and vegetable consumption in poor families. In the study, women in the WIC program who used vouchers to shop at local farmers’ markets ate approximately three more servings of fruits and vegetables a day than the control group, which didn’t receive the vouchers.
Brattleboro was lucky to have been picked as one of only three towns in Vermont to accept food stamps at their Farmers’ Market in 2007. As our mission was to increase access to locally grown food among underserved members of the population, we partnered with the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger to promote the availability of food stamps at the market, distributing notices at the Market and throughout the town. Acceptance of food stamps at Farmers’ Markets not only benefits underserved families without access to fresh food, but local farmers as well.
However the availability of EBT machines at Farmers’ Markets will not necessarily be a quick fix. The barriers for those who tend to choose processed food over local and fresh are financial but they also tend to be educational. The “Bridging the Gap” program attempted to reach out and educate community members on buying local and cooking with fresh vegetables. It would benefit both farmers and community members to increase the scope of this education and outreach.
There is no doubt that the families and children that were impacted by the “Bridging the Gap” program represent only a tiny portion of those in the community that stand to benefit from increased education and access to local foods. In an area with a sizable population of low-income residents, and a number of farms, the enthusiasm of the participants in the “Bridging the Gap” Farm Share program demonstrated that strengthening those connections can benefit both groups.