Category Archives: Veggies For All

Veggies For All Onion Transplant

photos by Jenny Nelson, text by Sara Trunzo
 
 
Spring in Maine is sometimes colder and actually involves more “gathering up” than Fall harvest time. This time of year at Veggies For All, we amass our stock of seeds (thanks, Fedco!), soils, materials, and tools- like other small farms. We call and email our volunteers to rally them for the many transplanting tasks ahead. Our crew members and volunteers lumber out into the fields, not yet limber from gardening or swimming or hiking. We all stand at the weedless field’s edge, zipping our jackets up to our chins.   
 

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.   

Veggies For All

Maine Association of Nonprofits at Veggies for All

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!

Hunger relief groups turn to farms for fresh, local donations

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.

HUNGER BY THE NUMBERS

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.

“The idea is to get people into the market who wouldn’t otherwise be there,” Leigh Hallett, executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, told theBangor Daily News last year .

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.”

WANTING FRESH, LOCAL

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.

VOLUNTEER DEPENDENT

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.”

CONTINUING TO GROW

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.”

Case Study: Veggies For All

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.

 

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