June 17, Serving Our Communities
Week 14 of Covid-19
MNFC has taken customer service to a new level with outdoor chairs for customers waiting to ente r
What we are hearing from the
front line at stores
For stores, safety reigns supreme. Keeping staff safe has been priority #1 since March. As "essential", stores continually adapt safeguards, many which we have covered in Small Bites for the past 13 weeks. Some stores are still operating with less than full staffing. Pre-order curbside assures customer comfort though staffing can be stressed & in-house operations challenging.

Masks may or not be required by shoppers but are certainly encouraged. Several stores, including the Rutland Coop, have had community members sew masks to be given away to customers. To further ensure safety, the Middlebury Coop has sanitizing stations strategically placed near cooler doors for additional assurance.

The governor has extended stay safe orders for the next month. But some stores are "loosening their spigot" by increasing store hours, often back to their pre-covid normalcy. To do so requires an operational perspective- do they have the staff to order, receive, shelve the food while maintaining additional service such as curbside, sanitizing & other covid related practices?

For stores, June is a refreshing month of increasing local produce & encourage seasonal promotions. Stores are taking advantage of the increase in local interest by highlighting area producers. Seasonal highlights this week favor strawberries (which are loving the heat) , asparagus, spring onions, all types of salad greens & of course herbs are full-tilt for summer salads. Some farms have their very first tomatoes, carrots & even baby summer squashes coming on.

  • Wilcox Ice Cream is looking to sell ice cream made with milk from the UVM dairy program. Due to the loss of institutional sales they need new markets. Stores, farmstands & distributors are encouraged to Reach out to Chris for details.
  • We are still hearing from stores how everything takes longer! Be it staff tasks or the customer shopping experience
  • Specialty shops are reopening following the governor's recommendations. Mad River Taste Place has just opened with safety modifications to ensure a great person-to-person experience, though without the usual sampling
  • More senior citizens are beginning to get out of the house to do a large grocery shop for the first time in months
  • Preferred method of payment continues to be electronic; cash requires more handling throughout the transaction & at end of shift cash out
  • In-store promotions include the fixings for picnics & small gatherings with a wide selection of Vermont products-including the beverage category
  • Independent stores are seeking alternatives to UNFI which continues to present high out of stock rates.
Middlebury Coop has resumed normal business hours & reoriented the entrance to manage shopper limits
Summer beverages are ready to be packed into coolers for everyone's Vermont Stay-cation . Venetian Ginger Ale, the re-imagining of an old family business has got to be top of pick list for refreshing summer drinks. The premium ginger ale is made with all-natural ingredients including real ginger juices, cane sugar, lime juice. It is amazing; if you need convincing, click the bottle for a tantalizing video!

It is available through a number of distributors, including Associated Buyers which just picked up the line selling to all their regional accounts. Baker is the exclusive Vermont distributor & Pumpkin Village sells it to NYC accounts, Register for Venetian updates & info
"Outrageously difficult, that's what it's been since March but it is great to see high customer support. Safety is our priority & customers appreciate all the staff efforts to meet their needs"
Tj GM @ Rutland Coop
What we are hearing for goodwill & community gestures
Between national unrest & covid there are many ways communities are rising to showcase positive efforts. Farmers, food manufacturers, stores & distributors have made public statements & sharing resources.
By Request: hot links

Please promote VT dairy at your store, in your farm stand or, in your distribution promotions. Our farms & cheesemakers are counting on us working together , this includes our like award winning artisan cheese makers such as Cobb Hill , Fairy Tale & Black Rose Creamery
Immokalee workers protesting for health & safety & changes to systemically unfair treatment
What we are hearing from the distribution & supply side
From the national picture, produce availability is tenuous in some areas as migrant workers in Florida have a high rate of covid impacting harvest & farm labor around the area of Immokalee. Testing by Doctors Without Borders (which was requested by local officials when the state declined to assist) found a 36% positivity rate in 235 tests administered in 9 of their clinics from May 1- June 9. The state average is just over six percent. The lack of attention to this community aligns with the overall national disregard for farm laborers. With lack of support & concern for safety, it was only a matter of time before the area would become a covid hot spot.

“It sort of is the redheaded stepchild. We don’t talk about Immokalee the same way we do about what’s going on in Naples. Back and forth on a packed bus … out on the field, you’re walking side by side, shoulder to shoulder.” - Lisa Kefkow Habitat for Humanity
The national food system reliance on migrant workers is entwined with our racial injustices; the workers in Immokalee live this daily. Florida is not the only state concerned about worker safety (for weeks, meat processing plants across the country have hit the national headlines). Our entire system of 2.5 million at risk farm workers needs to be addressed. Read Greg' Asbed's predictive foretelling NYT opinion piece from April 3rd.

The federal H2A worker program which is widely used by Vermont fruit & vegetable farms is growing in scale. Since 2014 the national program has more than doubled in size to over 209,000 workers primarily from Mexico & Jamaica. A national organization, Farmworker Justice, works to ensure safe worker conditions before, during & after covid. Federally, there has been a push to lower farm worker wages by changing the methodology to assess "adverse effect wage rates" . Locally Migrant Justice has been working for a decade on farm worker issues; stay up to date & support their localized efforts .

Onto some other topics:
  • Local distributors all report doing well while adjusting to ongoing or new variables. Yes there are still some gaps in products, but things are evening out.
  • Black River Produce has been busy with stores, farmstands & an uptick with restaurants coming back into play as the spigot has opened.
  • Upper Valley Produce has expanded Robie Farm protein with retail meat & poultry packs to fill unmet needs at stores.
  • Associated Buyers is bringing on Venetian Ginger Ale. The two companies met last fall at the Farm to Plate & ACORN co-sponsored Producer Buyer Forum. This type of introduction & results is exactly what the Forum has always been based on. Also of note, Mable has partnered with AB making it easier for stores & farmstands to order VT products.
  • Pumpkin Village Foods has local products flying out of Rail City Market & Wood Meadow Market.
  • Shipping costs to transport food are going up; FOB is impacted by government food security programs.
  • Markets for produce are expected to be erratic all summer due to uncertainties including the health of workers & covid outbreaks.
Montpelier Farmers Market Spring 2020
(Photo: credit: Austin Danforth Free Press)
What we are hearing from the farmer / producer side
Through the VVBGA listserve , we asked farmers for feedback on the new format for farmers's markets. Not surprisingly we heard an earful; the good, the bad & the ugly.

A range of comments: reporting great sales & some not so great sales, an overall feeling of safety for shoppers & vendors, new format is time consuming to navigate complicated by customer service that might include finding pre-orders. There was extensive shopper enthusiasm & farmers we got input from gave a version of "four stars for market managers" doing a great job (thanks NOFA for all the support offered early on).

There were a number of variances on how farmers chose to do a market (or why they opted out this year deciding to only have on-farm retail sales) . Operational adaptations included refraining from any open air markets, new online ordering & delivery direct to the shoppers' home, a new CSA or modified short term "test CSA" ( staying flexible as covid restrictions may change over the season). Completing the sale is at times challenging for some. Making change & serving customers with masks is tedious. In the rush for revenue, profitability is yet to be determined. This may be problematic as time goes on with many increased expenses & quite a few shopper-behavior uncertainties.

Sales are fluctuating & some farms are seeing an increase of 20%. However, customer's no longer have the ability to shop a vibrant produce stand or engage in the usual socializing. Many orders are pre-packed for a quick transaction. A summary from some farms is that home cooking meeting up with local food, is a good thing; Though the implementation costs of new operations is uncertain.
Grocers & Farmers Take Note!
DCF: has a new SNAP benefit ! Stores & farmers must have WIFI capacity & curbside service or home delivery. Vermont DCF is reimbursing retailers the cost of wireless EBT machines plus a one-year subscription service.  This offer applies to grocery stores & farm stand retailers Please email Leslie Wisdom , Food and Nutrition Program Director, for more information. For farm stand retailers, find more information here
Farm to Plate hosts meetings of technical advisers, non-profits, government & businesses to help us address current issues. The meetings are recorded & in the Covid-collection
Small Bites connects & shares your valued work. Farm to Plate knows producers, distributors & stores are front & center in helping keep communities safely connected to meet immediate, pressing & ever changing needs.
Thank you to all the farmers, producers, distributors & suppliers who spoke with us providing first hand information for this update. Your insider-view has been so helpful in this uncertain time.

~Wear Your Mask, Limit Your Contact, &
Please Keep Washing Your Hands~

Contact Annie H Harlow to share your Covid 19 insights & info


Funding support provided by USDA & VAAFM & High Meadows Fund