ACORN: Champlain Valley Foodshed

2020 Grant Amount: $7,500.00

The Champlain Valley Foodshed (working name) will be a centralized platform and online directory that promotes local food and farm businesses and allows regional eaters to connect directly with those producers.  ACORN would like to get all local farmers and food producers online and would use this funding to help identify farmers who do not have an online presence and provide Technical Assistance to them.

This is a collaboration with a small, non-profit team of web developers who are based in Middlebury as well as the Addison County Chamber of Commerce. ACORN will be creating a Local Foods Council specific to the Champlain Valley to include producers, distributors, suppliers, retailers, consumers and institution buyers such as Middlebury College, Addison Central School District and Porter Medical System.  Other partner organizations would include the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, Addison County Economic Development Corporation, Rise VT and HOPE. ACORN has also been in conversation with market managers from Winooski, Rutland and Brattleboro who are interested in creating a similar platform in the future.

The platform will:

  • Be created based on research with a key committee of growers in the off-season
  • Include a centralized cart for a virtual farmers’ market
  • Include an interactive map
  • Be accessible via a mobile app
  • Be built from the bottom up (with input from all key stakeholders)
  • Create new market infrastructure to facilitate regional infrastructure
  • Be user friendly to enable folks across age groups and technical abilities to access

Future goals include:

  • Ability to deliver to key drop-off points around the Champlain Valley and/or home delivery
  • A barter system for farmers and non-food producers to use
  • Potential for ACORN to act as the facilitator of aggregation and distribution.
  • Ability for farmers to aggregate CSAs across different product categories (i.e. having boxes that include bread, cheese, eggs and produce from different producers)

The President of the National Family Farm Coalition recently said, “We are seeing how fragile our food system is, with the globalization and concentration of production, and a few huge processing plants. We have to go back to regional and local food systems.”

COVID-19 has exposed the precarious economics of the food community in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, and beyond. Champlain Valley farms and food producers quickly lost farmers’ market, restaurant and institutional business as a result of the shutdown in mid-March, creating immense uncertainty in the local agricultural economy as well as food insecurity issues. At the same time, the public was looking for alternative ways to source food safely outside of grocery stores. ACORN immediately surveyed and interviewed our network’s farmers and identified an overarching question of how farmers and food producers can reach people beyond the existing CSA, farmers’ market and Co-op model. How do they establish a direct to consumer relationship and reach a wider audience? We found that growers can and want to grow more food but need more markets. We also found that a large portion of area farms aren’t online.

COVID-19 also reinforced something ACORN has known for years; lack of access has never been about a lack of food. It’s a problem of distribution. If we can provide a larger market for our local food growers, their efficiencies of scale should increase, prices will drop, and more people will be able to access local food.

By the end of April, ACORN organized an Online Farmers’ Market with two centralized distribution points in Bristol and Middlebury. ACORN also created an interactive Google Map that lists the nearly 250 farms and food producers based on the printed Food and Farm Guide which ACORN has been publishing since 2010. The public was driven to the Online Market section of the ACORN website as a place to identify nearby farms as well as online farm stores where they could place orders online. All orders were paid for through the farms’ websites (ACORN did not handle any of the money exchanged) and food was pre-packed in bags with customers' names on them for curbside pick-up.

ACORN provided marketing and publicity support using its network (Front Porch Forum, social media, e-newsletters, partner organizations, press releases) and volunteers assisted with curbside pick-up.

As the farmers’ markets reopened, ACORN decided to stop running the online market until we could create a more robust platform that made it easier for people to pay online, and an improved system for farmers to aggregate and deliver food.

The Online Farmers’ Market ran for five weeks before ACORN made the decision to close it until we could design a better system. We heard from various community members early on that they weren’t happy going to multiple farms’ websites, navigating various, confusing e-commerce platforms. Orders began to drop each week, and farmers were often driving 20 to 30 minutes to deliver one or two orders. ACORN quickly realized the need for an improved centralized platform.

During this time, ACORN was approached by a Middlebury College professor and two Computer Science students who were interested in building a centralized online market, temporarily called the Champlain Valley Foodshed. This aim is to create a free, not-for-profit platform that connects food producers from Addison County with community members and college students by providing a centralized online ordering system with an embedded pick-up and delivery mechanism. This platform will strengthen connections within the local economy and decrease several of the barriers that separate consumers from locally-produced food. ACORN was asked to be the partnering organization, and we have moved forward in developing this project jointly. ACORN is interested in getting more farms online, and acting as a key facilitator in solving the challenges of regional aggregation and distribution.

ACORN is providing the on-the-ground insight and direction based on our years of experience working in the local food system as well as connections to its network of regional producers, distributors, suppliers, retailers, consumers and institutional buyers. ACORN will also take on the research, marketing, online Technical Assistance for farmers, The Middlebury College team is building the technical back-end of the platform while also using an improved version of ACORN’s online map that is currently being developed and should be released this summer. The College team is forming a 501C3 organization to operate the platform.

In the future, ACORN would like to work with other organizations around the state to extend beyond the Champlain Valley, creating a Vermont Foodshed platform.