“I was flabbergasted,” said Steiger. “Each menu had artichoke dip and Reuben sandwiches and I thought why don’t we have our local produce booming on every single menu here?”
So Steiger got to work, thinking up ways in which local restaurants could access the fruits and vegetables growing on the very same roads. With help from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), and University of Vermont Extension, a food and nutrition program run by the university, Steiger is creating an online portal and delivery service with which local establishments will have easy access to local products. If all goes as planned, it will be up and running this summer.
Steiger, a local grower who provides area restaurants with 100 types of heirloom tomatoes, is also a chef at the Grey Ghost Inn in Dover, and uses his own produce in the meals he makes. While inquiring about how to make his own produce more easily available, he learned that NOFA-VT had been looking to set up a food delivery service in the Deerfield Valley.
NOFA and UVM Extension set up programs by which farmers supply produce for institutions like schools and hospitals.
Erin Buckwalter, Direct Marketing and Community Food Security Coordinator for NOFA-VT, says that the goal is working with farmers, institutions, and supply chain stakeholders in Windham and Rutland counties to improve the supply chain from producer to institutional buyer, to meet the growing demand for local food. “In Jessie's case, we helped organize a meeting where interested parties could come together to discuss what they could do to further this goal,” said Buckwalter. “Jessie's idea has grown out of that.”
Steiger will be running the pilot service this summer, setting up a delivery service for produce, as well as the website, and Steiger said that all of the local farms he has talked to are behind the idea. The website’s purpose is to show what local farmers have to offer, as well as a tier system for distance, to track how far a product travels to an institution or resturant. Buyers and sellers will be able to post their needs and inventory on the site.
At a meeting to assess interest in the program Steiger had local chefs list where their food was coming from, and Steiger saw very few local products being used. “From Black River Produce to Sysco, we saw there’s a lot of trucks coming into the valley, but why? We can have less come in, cut down on oil costs, and help the local community. It’s a no-brainer,” said Steiger.
Another important part of the process will be delivery of product, something Steiger is working on securing. There are few produce trucks that originate in the valley, but Sandy Kingsley, owner of Blue Mountain Produce, has shown interest in helping. Kingsley said she would be happy to help as long as the produce is fresh.
“I think this would definitely help the growers, because people in the area don’t have a way to get their produce out of the valley unless someone drives it there for them.”
The system is what Hans Estrin, Local Food Network Coordinator for UVM extension, likes to call “clean and green.” Estrin co-founded Windham Farm and Food, a similar program to Steiger’s pilot program, in that it helps farms in Windham County supply hospitals, homes for the elderly, and schools with fresh food. Estrin says that the Deerfield Valley program would center on restaurants, due to the economic reality of the area.
“The reality in the Wilmington area is it will help restaurants,” said Estrin. “The valley will benefit too, but won’t alone drive the truck. Each area we focus on is different and each hub we create will fit the logistics to local area personalities and economy.”
The plan is to dovetail into the way wholesale buyers do business by aggregating products on one invoice and have one source identifiable on each line item. While farms are responsible for selling direct, the pilot service will provide distribution.
“For every reason, this helps the local economy,” said Steiger. “From saving gas, to supporting the farmers who are struggling to keep their farm because if they don’t pay their taxes some large agricultural corporation comes and buys it up and turns it into God knows what, like they have with dairy.
“I can’t waste my time and effort on everything out there in the world that’s trouble, but what I can do is something here locally that will make the difference and change where I am. This work is for the future of my child, he’s my motivation.”
Steiger would like to see the program grow, have a name on local menus, and even create a vegetable of the month, where local restaurants focus their menus on specific produce items and create specialty items each month.