Food Security to Food Sovereignty: How the Abenaki Land Link Project is Seeding a More Just Food System

(Note: This is Part 1 in a series of blog posts highlighting the incredible work being done by our 2020 Seedling Grantees. Check back in regularly to hear about other projects!)  

One of many reasons that fall is an exciting time for City Market is that we have the privilege of hearing back from our Seedling Grant recipients on the progress their projects have made over the past several months.  We are now hearing back from our 2020 Grantees, who all faced an incredibly challenging year and managed to adapt, pivot and continue their important projects. Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce you to these grantees and show some of the positive impact their work has on our community and our food system.  

The Abenaki Land Link Project launched for the 2020 growing season as a partnership between the Nulhegan Band of Coosuk - Abenaki Nation, NOFA-VT and the Vermont Farm to Plate Network’s Rooted in Vermont project. A network of just 15 growers were entrusted with seed varietals that are indigenous to our area, and they shared their resources, time, skills, and land to grow Algonquin squash, Koasek Calais Mix corn, Calais Flint corn, True Cranberry beans, Skunk beans, and Vermont Mohawk beans. At the end of the growing season, these crops were harvested and processed through community processing days, stored in cold and dry storage, and then distributed throughout the fall and early winter to citizens of the Nulhegan Band of Coosuk - Abenaki Nation.     

For the 2021 growing season, the Abenaki Land Link project leveraged community connections and lessons learned from the pilot, along with a grant from City Market’s Seedling Grant Program, to expand to almost 40 growers. Growers are located across the state and range from backyard gardens and Land Trust properties to school gardens and commercial farms. Together, these growers produced over 3,600 pounds of Algonquin squash, in addition to several corn and bean varieties.   

(Map of Abenaki Land Link Growers)

Several growers incorporated education into their work growing corn, beans and squash. This hands-on learning opportunity provided a unique way for kids to feel the same sense of solidarity as the adults around them, and to encounter challenging ideas through a local lens. As Guy Maguire of the South Hero Land Trust wrote, “The Abenaki Land Link project gave students a chance to be involved in real, important work done in partnership with local Abenaki leaders. From an education perspective, the project also gave us a tangible way to explore and grapple with these oftentimes difficult conversations around the theft of land, the ongoing attempted genocide of native cultures, current issues around land access and justice, and food sovereignty, in a local and contemporary context. In the spring we worked with 3rd and 4th graders to plant the true cranberry beans. Then, in the fall, we came back with the same students to harvest them. It was so much fun to watch them marvel at how much the plants had grown.”    

Before the crops can be stored and then distributed throughout the winter, they need to be processed. About thirty growers, project partners, and volunteers met in early November to thresh and winnow the beans as well as husk and shell the corn. Funds from City Market’s Seedling Grant helped to provide access to necessary technologies like a thresher, mill, and commercial kitchen during the processing phase.   

What’s next for the Abenaki Land Link Project? The project’s partners are committed to building on this year’s success and delivering another harvest next year, while helping growers of all ages to deepen their understanding of what it means to steward the land. The Abenaki Land Link project is also part of a deeper conversation about food justice and food sovereignty. At a recent webinar through NOFA-VT’s Agricultural Literacy Week programming, Chief Don Stevens explained that the Abenaki Land Link Project is one of several ways that the Nulhegan Band of Coosuk - Abenaki Nation is building food security. Food security means that Abenaki citizens have reliable access to healthy and culturally relevant food. But food security is a far cry from food sovereignty, which can only be achieved when Abenaki citizens control their own food production.   

There’s a long way to go to bridge that gap. But, as Joe Bossen of Vermont Bean Crafters pointed out in the aforementioned webinar, the Abenaki Land Link Project’s success helps us to ask – and imagine answers to – practical questions that can help move the needle. How do we know when the seed supply is where it needs to be? How do we know when we have enough food? How do we scale the work to create a surplus and become a net exporter of these foods into the broader community? And, more broadly - how do we make these indigenous open-pollenated varieties a bigger share of our national agricultural makeup?    

As Don, Joe and many others work toward the answers to these questions, City Market is proud to have played a small part in a project that is planting the seeds of a more just food system.