ACORN’s Online Wholesale Marketplace Builds a More Resilient Food System in Addison County

(Note: This is Part 2 in a series of blog posts highlighting the incredible work being done by our 2020 Seedling Grant recipients. You can find Part 1 on the Abenaki Land Link project here. Check back in regularly to hear about other projects!)  
Like all of us, our 2020 Seedling Grant recipients faced challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN)’s Online Wholesale Market, responding effectively to the pandemic was a key part of their mission from the start. COVID-19 made it impossible to ignore the precarious state of the local food economy in the Champlain Valley and beyond. Once the statewide shutdown was announced in March 2020, Champlain Valley growers quickly lost access to farmers’ markets, restaurants and institutional business, creating uncertainty in the local agricultural economy and rising food insecurity for many of our neighbors. ACORN moved quickly to organize an online, direct to consumer farmers’ market with two centralized distribution points. ACORN closed the Online Market when farmers’ markets reopened and the volunteer-run direct-to-consumer market proved to be unsustainable to manage.
The experience of rapidly spinning up a direct to consumer digital farmers’ market offered ACORN an opportunity to connect with stakeholders across the food system in Addison County and develop new approaches to digital facilitation for local producers and buyers. Between August 2020 and April 2021, ACORN partnered with a UNH graduate student to better understand the needs and challenges of the farming community in the Champlain Valley and to assess the viability of an online market. All told, they surveyed 100 community members, held focus groups with farmers and consumers, and conducted 20 interviews with farmers, food hubs and wholesale buyers. 
Diagram explaining ACORN's project timeline - how they incorporated community feedback into designing and launching an online wholesale market.
This market research paved the way for a new, thoughtful, sustainable Online Wholesale Market serving the Addison County region. Funding from City Market’s Co-op Seedling grant enabled the purchase of a license from Local Food Marketplace, an existing piece of software. From there, ACORN soft-launched an online wholesale web platform that aggregates local products from small and medium sized farms in the region, embracing a business-to-business model that better serves the needs of the community. 
Co-op Seedling Grant funding also allowed ACORN to pursue additional sources of funding. In October 2021, ACORN was awarded the Specialty Crop Block grant to fund a part-time Market Manager and a Sales and Marketing Manager. A separate grant will fund the development of a business plan and feasibility study for a physical food hub – a key support for operating the Online Wholesale Market. 
Building infrastructure is hard but necessary to create the resilient food systems our communities need. ACORN’s work on the Online Wholesale Market shows that listening to stakeholders in our communities is critical to building the right frameworks and tools. ACORN continues to collaborate with food hubs across Vermont, as well as regional organizations, to expand their capabilities and meet the needs of their communities. ACORN also facilitates a monthly steering committee of local producers who are participating in the online market or interested in developing the food hub. Plus, they’re growing the market for local foods in Addison County by reaching out to institutional buyers including Porter Hospital, Middlebury College, Addison Central School District, and many other wholesale buyers in the region. 
We’re proud to have helped plant the seeds for ACORN’s Online Wholesale Market, and we can’t wait to see how it grows!