By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Khris Flack is the program manager for Veggies For All, a Unity-based food bank farm that serves 25 towns.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
UNITY, Maine — Ten years ago, a group of young Waldo County farmers became aware of a disturbing situation in the bucolic landscape around them. In a region of the state that is rich in agricultural land, one in seven people were considered food insecure, meaning they didn’t know when or if their next meal would come.
Tim Libby, then a 24-year-old recent University of Maine graduate, was working on a small family farm when he read a heartbreaking 2007 series of articles about hunger in Maine by public interest journalist Naomi Schalit. What he learned really bothered him.
“I was part of the up-and-coming, celebrated family farm movement. And I was a little irked by the poverty issues happening in the same community,” Libby said. “There were good farms in the area, run by good people, but it was a strange contrast, in my opinion. I felt like a lot of the folks in the area were being left behind.”
Libby and his friends decided they wanted to use their ability to grow vegetables to help solve the hunger problem. He came up with the perfect name: “Veggies For All,” which simply described his belief that everyone should have access to good, fresh produce, no matter how much money they did or didn’t have.
Everybody deserves to have vegetables, he thought. It was a big dream.
“But I figured, why not try?” Libby recalled.
A decade later, Veggies For All, which eventually became a nonprofit food bank farm now based in Unity and run as a program of the Belfast-based Maine Farmland Trust, has worked hard to live up to its moniker. With the help of volunteers — 175 last summer alone — the organization has grown nearly 150,000 pounds of vegetables over the years, mostly storage crops, such as potatoes, carrots, onion, winter squash and cabbages, that are distributed through nine partner food pantries.
The produce helps feed about 1,500 low-income people living in 25 towns, so it has a broad reach. The way the vegetables are sourced is unique, too. The organization’s farmers and volunteers plant and tend plots of land located around the town of Unity, some of which is privately owned and previously underutilized. Other vegetables — 12,000 pounds worth last year — are gleaned from the fields of local farms and businesses, such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow.
‘A win-win situation’
“It’s added a lot to us,” Bob VanDeventer, who runs the Volunteer Regional Food Pantry in Unity, said of Veggies For All. The food bank farm gives his pantry more than 15,000 pounds per year of fresh produce. “For many of the people we serve, especially seniors, fresh vegetables are something that you don’t often get. I would say that it’s a win-win situation — the fresh vegetables are key.”
Still, 10 years is a long time in the life of a small nonprofit, and this year will bring some changes to Veggies For All. Most notably, Libby and longtime director Sara Trunzo have stepped down recently to pursue other options. Replacing their roles is Khris Flack, who has been with Veggies for All for nearly a year. Flack, 30, came to Maine because he and his fiancee found an affordable parcel of land in Swanville to build their homestead, which they are calling Sight Unseen Woods. And when he learned Veggies For All was hiring, he got excited.
“I started and helped to manage a project similar to Veggies For All in northern Vermont,” he said. “I’d always had my eye out for a way I could keep going with this work.”
The work, he said, is close to his heart. Flack, a thoughtful man who already looks right at home in Unity with his big woolen hat and his older-model Subaru station wagon, said he has something in common with some of the Veggies For All clients.
“I grew up in a house that was arguably food insecure. I didn’t have a particularly stable situation,” he said. “And I’ve also had the experience of seeing what can be done with a piece of ground and some seeds.”
Flack would love to help other people share in that experience, if he can. Last summer, the organization has a pilot community garden program located on a plot of land behind the food pantry in downtown Unity, and he is interested in figuring out a way to add more community gardens to the mix. In Vermont, the project he started featured community gardens that operated more on a work-trade model.
“The more time you put in, the more food you take home. That worked out really well,” he said. “If there was a way to do it at Veggies For All, it would be really cool.”
Community gardens can be run on different models, but what worked in Vermont was having many people share the labor in one big garden, instead of splitting up a parcel of land into individual plots. That way, gardeners with more experience can help newbies figure out what needs to be done. It also is a great way to strike up a conversation with your gardening neighbor and get to know them better.
“Truthfully, we don’t really know what happens to the food [now] after it gets distributed to people,” Flack said. “That’s another reason why clients getting involved in the growing is important. There’s so much informal exchange. You learn so much from each other while you’re weeding or hoeing.”
Part of the answer
Additionally, having community gardens would allow Veggies For All to diversify the produce they grow, branching out from the long-lasting storage crops primarily grown so far. Right now, they concentrate on storage crops because the food bank distributions are often held on a monthly basis, and vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, string beans and zucchini wouldn’t keep. Flack hopes that encouraging clients to work in the garden alongside volunteers and staff could be empowering, too.
“It isn’t about help. It’s about support,” he said. “Learning how to see your community as a place of potential abundance rather than scarcity. … After 10 years, there’s a lot of interest in transcending the charity model. I can’t help but be curious. What does it take to get people to feel like they’re part of the answer?”
Flack is quick to add that Veggies For All is not planning to discontinue its longstanding mission of growing vegetables for the hungry. He knows how many cascading and complicated issues can be a part of food insecurity. So does Sara Trunzo, the longtime director who left Maine recently to pursue a songwriting career in Nashville, Tennessee, where she hopes to tell stories inspired by the people she met doing service work in rural Maine.
“Anti-poverty work is about changing systems and ending oppression. It’s about bigger policy shifts, like increasing the minimum wage and increasing the standards of living that we’re willing to tolerate for the most vulnerable people in our community,” she said.
And yet, the poverty she saw in Unity was often about much smaller things, too. Trunzo, 31, worked quite a bit with VanDeventer and the food pantry when she was in Unity and saw how small problems snowballed into crisis for families living on the margin or just on the edge of getting by.
“In my experience, folks were able to stop coming to the food pantry, and then one little thing changed: Their transmission goes, they have a medical bill, a grandchild moves in, and man, they are back at the food pantry. It wasn’t for lack of trying,” she said. “It could be incredibly demoralizing, and there were some days that it was.”
Something that kept her going was Veggies For All.
“It fostered a really positive conversation about hunger,” she said. “You feel a little more empowered if you’re thinning carrots or digging potatoes. My hope for Veggies For All is that it will continue to be what is needed for our community in the next moment.”
The Veggies For All crew and volunteers are savoring the last days of summer and continuing with regular volunteer workdays every Tuesday morning from 9am to noon. This season, we’ve worked with 160 unique volunteers logging nearly 320 hours of service in the fields. We’re proud to report that we’ve brought in just over 10,000 pounds of produce so far this year which has been distributed to about 1,500 clients through 9 participating food pantries.
There’s still literally tons left to harvest, and VFA always welcomes volunteers! This season, VFA has worked with fantastic groups of helpers all season, from Hidden Valley campers to UMaine Medical students to Unity Barn Raisers volunteers, and we’re looking forward to having the Belfast Co-op Board join us to harvest beets and Unity College Sustainable Ag. students plant garlic with us in the coming weeks. If you’d like to join us in the field, or just learn more about VFA’s work, emails email@example.com
This has been a season of growth and change at Veggies For All. This season, the VFA crew swapped some old fields for new ones, piloted Pick Your Own gardens for clients, and supported the launch of a regional gleaning program.
Behind the scenes, the VFA crew has been busily working on a restructuring and streamlining process, too, due to some upcoming staff transitions. Last fall farm manager Tim Libby made plans to move on from VFA after founding the project in 2007 and has leading the field work for the past 9 years. To support that change, Khris Flack came on as Assistant Project Manager, a new position that mixes the seasonal field work of a farm manger with administrative, community engagement, and leadership work. Adding this dynamic and comprehensive position to the VFA roster has helped make way for other changes, as well. VFA director, Sara Trunzo, recently shared her plans to transition away from VFA at the end of 2016.
Despite these shifts, the Veggies For All project is stronger than ever, thanks to deep connections within the Waldo County community, a skilled and thoughtful crew, and an intentional transition that has been happening over the last several months. It’s quite an exciting and fresh time! What won’t change is the commitment we have to providing those facing food insecurity with healthy, fresh food nor our community’s commitment to us as we continue to serve. And there will always be tons and tons and tons of veggies…
Please join us to celebrate the harvest, welcome new faces and appreciate the old standbys, and mark the sweetness of the season at our ScuffleHoeDown on November 5 at The Hub in Unity (featuring live music with Hymn for Her).
Today’s Maine Fare recipe celebrates the full circle of the season at VFA — from the careful transplanting of thousands of tiny onions in the spring, to the bountiful harvest of beautiful, big onions now. This warming and comforting soup is incredibly easy to make and has a deliciously deep flavor even though it’s made with very few ingredients.
1/2 cup butter
3 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
salt and black pepper, to taste
6 sprigs parsley
6 sprigs thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
a dash of ground sage or two sage leaves
2 quarts vegetable or chicken or beef stock
six thick chunks of bread of your choice (one per bowl)
a generous amount of grated cheese over each bowl (we used goat gouda for a unique twist)
Over medium-low heat, sauté the onions in the butter and wine, adding salt and pepper, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften and turn deep golden brown, about 20-30 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring the stock and herbs to a boil over high heat in a pot. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Strain the herbs and remove from stock.
Add the stock to the carmelized onions and simmer for 40 minutes to an hour.
While the soup simmers, spread the bread slices with the remaining butter. Toast in a skillet over medium heat, turning once, until golden, 5–7 minutes.
Add bread to each serving of soup (individual bowls), and shave hard cheese over the bowls, adding salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.
Veggies For All (VFA) is food bank farm located in Unity, Maine that works to relieve hunger by growing vegetables for those in need, while collaborating with partners to distribute and increase access to quality and nutritious food. Founded in 2007 by beginning farmers, VFA is a project of Maine Farmland Trust that has grown and distributed 130,000 pounds of fresh produce to 1,500 people utilizing food pantries in the greater Unity area.
We ask volunteers planting the onions to be sure the delicate roots are completely covered in soil and to make a shallow “well” at the base of each plant. Yes, the slight impression we make with our fingers does catch rain water that helps keep the plant hydrated. But, we also like to think of this step as a little blessing, an extra connection between the transplanter and the transplanted. Volunteers, even very young ones or those who do it differently in their home gardens, are eager to please.
Each year, VFA grows nearly 10,000 onions for eventual distribution to Mainers facing food insecurity. The task of growing and transplanting these onions is not just a sensitive agricultural task, but an apt metaphor for organizing in community, because we aim to pull in many hands at just the right moments. We enlist skilled staff to seed and closely manage the onions through the early Spring, with our student workers supporting the effort by watering, monitoring, trimming, and thinning. Our farm manager cultivates a well-amended field at the proper place in the crop rotation, forming tidy beds. Untrained youth volunteers and longtime gardeners alike step into the field, tiny onion seedlings in hand, to get instruction on just where and just how to “plug them in” to our neat, vast grid.
In a couple months, these slight wisps of green will turn into hearty yellow, white, and purple bulbs to be gathered in heavy black crates. Our small truck beds will overflow with onions on their way to be laid out, cured, and trimmed in the greenhouse before Winter storage. If weather and whim cooperate and if we do our job properly, the crop will make its way to 1,500 of our neighbors utilizing local food pantries. They’ll sit on kitchen tables, crowd cabinets, and sizzle in sauce pans across central Maine. We can smell it already.
By Kathleen Pierce for The Bangor Daily News
How does healthy food get to the hungry? The backbone of food distribution, from farm to food bank to recipient, is vividly detailed in a series of powerful images by Bowdoinham photographer Brendan Bullock.
The exhibit “Feeding Maine” chronicles this vital food chain, which some say is broken. Maine has the highest level of food insecurity in New England and is ranked 18th nationally for food insecurity.
“One of the more powerful ways we are leveraging local food is to fight hunger,” said Ellen Sabina, outreach director at Maine Farmland Trust, who coordinated the show with the Good Shepherd Food Bank.
This month, “Feeding Maine” lands at Frontier in Brunswick. On Feb. 10, hunger advocates, farmers and influential figures such as Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale and Chris Cabot of Merrymeeting Food Council will discuss initiatives to create a resilient food system.
Sara Trunzo, director of the Unity-based food bank farm Veggies for All, said the photos open a rare, authentic window into the growing hunger crisis in Maine.
“In the food access world, a lot of the images we see tend to be overly bleak, depressing, sad or too charitable for reality,” Trunzo said. “These images of organizations photographed day in and day out are really real and gritty and hopeful.”
Upbeat photos of Healthy Acadia’s gleaning program show a smiling, young crew of volunteers at Four Season Farm in Harborside harvesting greens. Images such as a group of volunteers loading a month’s worth of food at the Catholic Charities warehouse in Caribou and a portrait of a blacksmith at work highlight the many sides of the issue.
Though the bright and colorful radishes, tomatoes, beets and carrots look lovely, especially in the winter, the show is as much about people as produce. The burly blacksmith photographed at work puts a new face on the food insecure.
“I wanted to shoot him at his blacksmith bench to show that demand for the work he has done has dropped off, but he is not taking from the system and not giving back,” Bullock said. “He is a skilled person who just needs extra help to get through the month.”
Bullock, a documentary-style photographer who also shoots weddings, said the project opened his eyes to the stigma of nutrition assistance.
“In the highly charged political environment we are in right now, the idea of charity and giving, which some call entitlements, that you should pull yourself up by bootstraps … everyone does better when we help our neighbors,” Bullock said. “People around the state from varying political outlooks should agree that getting fresh food in the hands of people in the state is a win for everyone.”
Programs such as Good Shepherd’s Mainers Feeding Mainers, featured in the show, boost local economies by putting money in farmers’ pockets.
“This work is not simple,” Trunzo said. “Some of the images that people see in the media about food insecurity are one sided, but it’s not so complex that it’s not worth working on.”
“Feeding Maine” runs through February in Brunswick then travels to the Belfast Co-op and Belfast Library in March. Locations are being scouted for Sanford, Yarmouth and Bangor. The free panel discussion is at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, at Frontier, 14 Maine St., Brunswick.
The Maine Association of Nonprofits came out to Veggies for All in Unity last week for a day of work (and play!) in the fields. Read their account of the day below. This was originally posted on their website.
“You’ve never seen a group of people more excited to get out of the office than our staff! A full day with no phones or computers, spent with great people, playing in the dirt. It was a Wish You Were Here postcard kind of day. We had perfect weather, lots of laughs, a delicious lunch, and a thoughtful, well-planned day, all thanks to Sara Trunzo, Director of Veggies for All (VFA), a project of Maine Farmland Trust.
“VFA is a food bank farm located in Unity, Maine that works to relieve hunger by growing vegetables for those in need, while collaborating with partners to distribute and increase access to quality and nutritious food. Their work is
necessary, collaborative, and inspiring. Over their 8 year history, they’ve grown and distributed over 108,000 pounds of pesticide-free vegetables which they make available to 9 food pantries and over 1,500 people in central Maine. This past year alone, VFA grew and distributed over 33,000 pounds of veggies, and engaged volunteers in 580 hours of service.
“If you’ve never been to Unity, it’s worth a trip. This town is a hub for all things sustainable, with Maine Farmland Trust, Unity College, Unity Barn Raisers and MOFGA all within just a few miles of one another. I’d never been to Unity except to attend the Common Ground Fair, so it was great to spend a day NOT in a long line of cars with the masses. Instead we filled our water bottles, applied sunscreen, toured the VFA fields and Unity College, saw Maine Farmland Trust’s new beautiful building, and then got to work thinning carrots under the watchful eye of Tim Libby, VFA’s Farm Manager.
“We were rewarded with a nap-inducing overabundance of lunch, prepared for us by Monica Murphy, owner of Crosstrax restaurant. Delicious pizza, salads and roasted VFA summer squash, and a blueberry tiramisu for dessert. Ready for a nap!
“No nap, back to the fields. Most of us were groaning as we bent over the tiny plants, our muscles tightening, trying our best to pull only the weeds. Then a drive back to Portland the back roads way with all the beauty of Maine waving as we passed.
“Today we are all a bit sore after our time with the carrots and rutabaga. (Or rutabagas. Not sure if there’s a plural. Not sure I’d like to eat one, either.) The only one not complaining is Ethan, our resident yoga instructor AND gardener. The rest of us are passing the Ibuprofen, and wishing we could have about 30 more out-of-office days before summer ends.”
Thanks for helping out, MANP!
Re-posted from Bangor Daily News.
By Natalie Feulner
John F. Kennedy once said “the war against hunger is truly mankind’s war of liberation.” Here in Maine, that fight is being waged by groups and volunteers all set on increasing everyone’s access to local, fresh food.
In one community, it is a group of volunteers pulling weeds at a farm where 100 percent of the produce is donated. In another, it’s a group asking for donations after weekly farmers markets. Elsewhere, it’s organizations working to increase the number of Maine markets accepting supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits.
Regardless of how it manifests, those providing hunger relief are a web of farmers, volunteers and people combatting hunger in a state where thousands live each day without enough to eat.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 15.1 percent of Maine households, or 200,000 people, are food insecure. That means they lack access to enough food to meet their nutritional needs.
The USDA also estimates 18 percent of Mainers were using food stamps as of last year. However, 36 percent of the state’s food insecure population makes too much money to qualify for food stamps and must rely on food pantries or similar organizations.
Those who do receive state benefits often can use them at nearly 40 markets throughout the state, a recent change spurred by Brewer-based nonprofit Food AND Medicine, which brought a food stamps matching program to markets in Greater Bangor.
Still, Maine ranks 17th in the nation and first in New England for the number of residents living in food insecurity. It’s because of that increase that people such as Sara Trunzo, director of Veggies for All, feel compelled to work for hunger relief organizations. Veggies for All is a Unity-based “food bank farm” that grows vegetables and donates them to food pantries and groups that distribute them to families in need.
“There’s something about this model that’s a little bit too charitable. I mean, we grow veggies just to give them away,” she said. “But in many ways I feel like it’s an emergency when families that live in my community don’t have enough food.”
Ron Murphy, a volunteer with Crossroads Ministry in Old Town, said he has seen a shift in what people are looking for when they visit the pantry. Crossroads runs a food pantry and provides low-income families with assistance for paying utility bills or purchasing clothing, furniture and household items.
Most of the time, if there is a choice between fresh vegetables and cans, food pantry visitors will choose the fresh, Murphy said. Not that patrons are picky; they just lean more toward fresh food when it’s available.
Donations run in cycles at Crossroads. Sometimes there’s so much spaghetti they can’t get rid of it all. Other times there’s a need for dry cereal.
But in the summer, fresh vegetables take the cake.
“More people are looking for fresh, and hopefully word gets around that we have that stuff,” Murphy said.
Crossroads gets most of its vegetables in the summer from an “aftermarket gleaning program.” Gleaning is the time-honored practice of collecting extra produce after the main harvest or market. In Greater Bangor, farmers at markets donate extra products that didn’t sell each week to organizations such as Crossroads, which then distribute them to area residents.
At Veggies for All, veggie trends families can get behind is important for Trunzo and her volunteers. Many families are looking for vegetables and fruits such as cucumbers, carrots and sweet corn — things they know their kids will eat.
Volunteers also focus on growing hearty fall crops, such as squashes, because they store well and can be turned into “unidentifiable veggies.” For example, families can replace rice or pasta with shredded spaghetti squash.
“We provide food for around 1,500 people and one-third of that is children … so we hope they can turn what we have have into something kids will eat,” Trunzo said.
A big challenge for hungry families in rural communities such as Unity is access.
In order for many farmers to make a decent living, they have to go to big markets, which means produce grown in a small town often leaves for places such as Bangor.
But programs such as Veggies for All and an increasing number volunteers who see the need in their communities seem to be closing that gap.
Veggies for All has more than 200 volunteers from all walks of life who have logged thousands of hours, Truzo said. Some are students, some only work once, others volunteer a part-time job’s worth of hours.
Any money raised is used to pay the few staff members, such as Trunzo and the farm manager, as well as purchase and maintain equipment.
“Our local community is so supportive and in a grass-roots way,” Trunzo said. “Some people see food justice work as an essential way to do emergency preparedness; others have religious or ethical commitments to feeding the hungry and youngsters don’t like the inequity that sometimes happens in rural communities.”
But it’s not just laborers. Farmers throughout the town offer the organization extra fields to work. It means a lot of running around — especially on transplanting day — but it makes a difference.
In the case of the aftermarket gleaning programs, farmers don’t necessarily have time to donate but they have food, said Kate Garland, a horticulturist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension program.
“Farmers don’t have time to donate their extra produce, during market. It’s that time of year when they don’t have a spare moment,” Garland said. “But it really blew me away that first year to see how generous everyone was and how eager they were to see that the food was going to a good place where folks need it.”
Each week at the Bangor-area markets, several volunteers bring bags around to each farm and ask for donations. But Garland makes it clear the donations are not just leftovers.
“This is top-quality food, this is not seconds — although seconds are good too — but this is the stuff you or I’d be getting from the market, good stuff, breads, cheeses and meats.”
Trunzo said her organization is hoping in the coming years that programs such as Veggies for All will become a model for building an “ag-economy.” Right now, she says, they are providing relief but are not preventing hunger. An ag-economy would be a place where the community provides most if not all the food its people needs.
“We are meeting an immediate community need, but we also need to build clients for farms in the future. … It would be exciting to see this grow into a more thriving agricultural economy,” Trunzo said.
For Garland, she’s looking forward to another year of growth for the aftermarket gleaning program. However, she’s hopeful, too, that along with filling the “huge need for reliable volunteers” she’ll find someone willing to expand the program to include on-farm gleaning.
Murphy, who works directly with the recipients of the major web of farms and organizations, said he hopes people realize how big the need for fresh food is.
“I want people to realize how many people there are who actually need food; it’s a lot more than people realize,” he said. “And there’s still work to do. No one should have to choose between paying bills or buying food.”
Farm to Institution New England (FINE) recently wrote a detailed piece on our project Veggies For All, highlighting VFA’s important partnership with Unity College. This collaboration provides thousands of pounds of food to hundreds of clients of the local food bank, the Volunteer Regional Food Pantry, and offers educational opportunities for students. Read the full story here.