(This story was first published in the March 27, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)
By Virginia Dean, Standard Correspondent
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — During the year, many high school students throughout the Upper Valley devote their extra time to fundraising for school-related clubs or teams. By selling candy, flowers, or baked goods, for example, they hope to keep their organizations rejuvenated and ready to carry on to the following year.
What they might not be aware of, however, is that they could offer potential investors a wider range of goods from which to choose. Enter Vital Communities, a nonprofit organization whose agenda and programs are driven by regional needs and community interests.
|Matthew Brankman, Principal at Sharon Elementary School picks up his order which includes a large bag of carrots. Photo Provided|
“It works on sustainability issues on both sides of the river,” said Executive Director Mary Margaret Sloan. “We were created to be an independent voice around regional issues. Every issue comes from the community and requires a regional solution.”
Local agriculture, for example, is important to people of this region and is part of their identity, Sloan related.
“It’s the same for the other issues we take on, too,” she said. “Other examples include energy, transportation, leadership, education and the arts.”
There are eight programs affiliated with the nonprofit including Valley Food and Farm, Valley Quest, Local First Alliance, Leadership Upper Valley, Upper Valley Transportation Management Association, Corporate Council, Municipal Network, and the Energy Program.
Of the eight programs in Vital Communities, Valley Food and Farm, according to Program Manager Becka Warren, supports local farms by connecting them to consumers and promoting local food in general. Linked to this program are FarmRaisers whose mission is to buy local, fresh, healthy farm products and support schools at the same time.
“We have an online guide, an annual celebration of farms and local food,” said Warren. “The FarmRaiser asks how to connect farms and consumers and what schools can do with their fundraising. They offer delicious, healthy farm products for sale to school communities” There are two benefits to this, said Warren. One is to create more opportunity for a connection between farm and consumers and another is to provide an opportunity for fund raising that aligns with a school’s philosophy.
“We invite you to try an alternative fundraiser at your school,” said Laura Dintino, Program Manager of Valley Quest, another place-based education program. “How about selling locally grown fresh farm products? As a neutral convener, we bring diverse people and organizations together to devise and implement collaborative solutions.”
Vital Communities was established in 1993 by the League of Women Voters of the Upper Valley as a grassroots movement originally called Upper Valley: 2001 & Beyond. The project’s purpose was to increase communication and cooperation among Upper Valley towns for regional planning, sustainability and civic engagement, a goal that still exists today.
“Our mission is to keep the Upper Valley a sustainable and livable place,” said Dintino. “Our programs arise from issues that communities tell us about that no other nonprofit is working on. We don’t want to compete with other organizations.”
As such, Vital Communities serves 69 towns in the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire. The perimeter of its service includes Ryegate, Vt., and Bath, N.H., in the north; New London, N.H., in the east; Walpole, N.H., and Westminster, in the south; and Bethel, in the west.
Within that region, the organization works to make agriculture, for example, a vital part of daily community life. Some of the farms served include Luna Bleu, Green Mountain Yogurt, Your Farm, Honey Locust Farm, Four Corners Farm, Oak Wood Farm, Cedar Mountain Farm, Side Track Farm, Clay Hill Corners, Clay Hill Farm, Fat Rooster Farm, Hurricane Flats, and Cedar Circle.
|A family from Newbury, enjoys free pie and frozen yogurt at the FarmRaiser Celebration.
“We’re listed in their farm users and are in the process of developing an apprentice worker collaborative with 10 other farms through Vital Communities to increase young workers’ knowledge about farming and different practices,” said Tim Sanford, owner of Luna Bleu in So. Royalton.
Jennifer Megyesi and Kyle Jones, owners of Fat Rooster Farm in Royalton, relate that their farm is part of Vital Communities’ list serve and allows the farm to advertise its products.
“They offer a really good service,” said Megyesi. “They gather local information and then distribute it. We get calls all the time for our products that are obtained through Vital Communities.”
At Honey Locust Farm in Bradford, owner Jake Torrey said he sees a lot of web activity through Vital Communities.
“We sell our vegetables, chickens, pork and Thanksgiving turkeys,” said Torrey. “It’s great.”
The schools connected through Vital Communities’ programs have been comprised of Sharon Elementary, Ottauquechee Elementary School, Hartland Elementary School, Newbury Elementary School, and Bradford Elementary School, but there will be 15 new schools added this year.
In the Hartland Elementary School’s Farm to School Program, for example, which promotes the value of local agriculture and food, students are educated about healthy eating habits and are encouraged to participate in field trips to see farms and take part in planting and harvesting vegetables. Farmers and specialists also visit the school. Students appear to be more willing to try new foods when they are involved in the actual production of their breakfast and lunch menus.
“We also helped them set up a FarmRaiser program,” said Dintino. “They felt it was successful but would like to integrate it into more activities that are going on at the school.”
At the Bradford Elementary School, Food Service Director Corinna Magalhaes buys produce from multiple local farms, including apples, corn and potatoes, and berries. Parent volunteers help to pick and process the produce. BES has several raised bed gardens, which are used by teachers to promote student learning.
“We helped them run a Farm-Raiser there,” said Dintino. “They sold locally grown farm produce to raise money for their farm to school program. It was successful and felt that it was really great and would like to do it again.”