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$25,000 Awarded to Local Organizations Addressing Food Insecurity in Bennington County

Bennington College has awarded a total of $25,000 in grants to local organizations to implement and support seven community-proposed initiatives that explore and expand food systems in Bennington county.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation logo

Project proposals from the Sage Street Mill, Bennington Community Market, Green Mountain Aquaponics, Northshire Grown Direct, Lake Paran Village, Shires Housing, and Sunrise Family Resource Center were selected among applications from community members to Bennington College’s Community Resource Fund. This fund supports catalyzing, collaborative projects that further understanding of local food systems and leverage innovative solutions to address food insecurity in Bennington County

This is the third year the Community Resource Fund has supported local initiatives, with an increase of funding from 2021. Last year, seven grants totaling $20,000 were awarded to local grantees. Read more about their projects.

The Community Resource Fund is made possible by the College’s $1 million, three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to collaboratively explore and address the systemic causes of food insecurity in Bennington County. 

“We are pleased that we were able to support such important projects from community organizations in Bennington during the challenging time of this pandemic,” said Susan Sgorbati, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. “There is much going on now to address the important challenge of food insecurity, and we look forward to working with our community partners. Only together can we meet the needs of our community. ”

Sunrise Food Pantry: Fresh Produce Gardens and Stocking Support

Each year, Sunrise Family Resource Center assists over 1,200 Bennington County families as they work toward reaching their full potential by overcoming barriers such as poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and education disparities. Sunrise partners with families to build healthy bodies and minds with quality nutrition.

To encourage food security among Sunrise’s families, the Sunrise Food Pantry was established last year with help from a 2021 Community Resource Fund grant.

This year’s grant will further support the filling of the Sunrise Food Pantry shelves. Additionally, the grant will help build raised garden beds to plant vegetables, fruits, and herbs that can then be offered as fresh produce in the Pantry.

This project will be led by Denise Main, Executive Director of Sunrise Family Resource Center, with support from Sarah Livingstone, Grants and Communications Specialist, and our Learning Together Program Teacher. Partners include Grateful Hearts and the Vermont Food Bank.

Cora B. Whitney Community Garden

The Cora B. Whitney residences of Bennington County’s Shires Housing/Support and Services at Home (SASH) support 24 units (two of which are located at an adjacent property) designated for seniors or people with disabilities. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many residents had a community garden. However, due to staff members not being on location and resident turnover, these gardens now need repair and replacing. 

This Community Resource Fund will be used to rebuild a robust community garden, which will help address food insecurity in the two Cora B. Whitney buildings by growing fresh produce. This project will help residents save money on fresh produce, which in turn will promote healthier eating. 

Additionally, the project will combat social isolation by inviting local speakers and hosting workshops on gardening topics, all while fostering good relationships with residents, volunteers, and partners.

This project will be led by Becky Arbella, Shires Housing/SASH Implementation Manager; along with Kim Cook, Shires Housing/SASH Coordinator.

Bennington Community Market

The census tract surrounding downtown Bennington is designated as a "food desert" where residents do not have enough access to fresh produce and face food insecurity, as well as higher rates of poverty and unemployment.

In response, a coalition of citizens has formed a nonprofit organization to create the Bennington Community Market, a community-supported grocery in Bennington that promotes sustainable local agriculture, downtown revitalization, and healthy food for everyone. This group is committed to making the market welcoming and affordable to low-income individuals.

With the support of this Community Resource Fund, the Bennington Community Market aims to create a membership model for low-income individuals to have access to fresh foods from the market. This grant supports research and outreach to local organizations and producers to develop partnerships and plans for a healthy food access fund for the market.

This project will be led by Shannon Barsotti, Community Development Director of the Town of Bennington, with support from Hannah True, Project Manager.

North Bennington Multi-Sector Makers Market

The North Bennington Multi-Sector Makers Market is Bennington’s only year-round alternative market and sanctuary for minority-owned businesses and farms, offering organic food at more affordable prices in an alternative creative multi-sector arts space.

The Community Resource and Strategy grant will be used to purchase an Energy Star-certified refrigerator and freezer to expand the market’s range of accessible and affordable organic food and beverages year round. 

Typically, access to organic food and "wellness programs" are mostly available to upper-income families. As a local collective of diverse multi-generational leaders across various sectors of arts, health, food, farming and green energy, the North Bennington Multi-Sector Makers Market is dedicated to breaking down these economic and social barriers.

This project will be led by Patricia Pedreira, President and CEO of Community Exchange & Development Corp., and Ahmad Yassir ’20, Program Manager.

Shires Direct for Neighbors in Need

Northshire Grown: Direct (NG:D) is a volunteer-led direct-to-consumer “bundled CSA” online platform that has generated a new market channel for farms and food businesses through a large Northshire customer base. 

Initially launched to help area farms and food businesses recoup lost revenues due to COVID-19, NG:D's main focus is to move food and better farmers' bottom line. 

This Community Resource Fund grant will be used to create a Shires Neighbors in Need program, putting local food into food insecure homes through customer philanthropy.

NG:D's Neighbors initiative focuses on local food system buoyancy and the positive changes that come from healthier communities. The Shires Neighbors in Need program creates a way for food insecure families to get the benefits of local food, while farmers get more cash for their products.

This project will be led by Liz Ruffa, Advancement Director of Merck Forest & Farmland Center and Project Director for Northshire Grown: Direct, and NG:D organizers Heidi Lynn and Maria Reade, with support from Merck Forest and Farmland Center leadership staff.

Healthy Cooking on a Budget

Lake Paran Recreation provides healthy outdoor fun to nature lovers. Continuing Lake Paran’s food processing project from 2020, the organization will use this Community Resource Fund to host community cooking classes for low-income residents in nearby Shires Housing Lake Paran Village apartments.

Classes will empower participants to feel confident in the kitchen, so healthy eating will not feel out of reach. At the end of each series, the attendees will also receive a cooking tool to bring home with them.

Friends of Hiland Hall Gardens will provide crops for food accessibility and co-plan food workshops, and Shires Housing will market the workshops to their residents and provide in-kind donations of kitchen equipment.

This project will be led by Camille Kauffman, AmeriCorps VISTA; Elizabeth Schumacher, Lead Grower at Friends of Hiland Hall; and Becky Arbella, Shires Community Housing Specialist.

Sustainable Indoor Aeroponics

Many people in Southwestern Vermont are affected by food scarcity and the resultant chronic nutritional deficiency. However, many consumers cannot afford the price of organic food markets or simply don't have access to them. 

With the support of the Community Resource Fund, Green Mountain Aquaponics will build and operate the first indoor commercial aeroponic farm in Southern Vermont. The construction of this facility will have many positive benefits to local communities, as well as to larger areas if replicated in multiple locations within the region. 

This facility will demonstrate the production of a high-demand crop in an area of seasonally restrictive availability. Food products will be grown with only locally sourced organic nutrients products. Growing products with ultra-efficient LED lighting and Energy Star-certified equipment will also produce more calories per watt than traditional High Intensity Discharge lights. 

This project will be led by Adam Platt, CEO of Green Mountain Aquaponics, and Maria Reyes, Director of Operations at Green Mountain Aquaponics. 

About Food Insecurity in Bennington County

Food insecurity–an inability to access enough healthy food to meet basic needs because of financial constraints–is a serious problem across the state of Vermont, and particularly in the Bennington region.

Hunger Free Vermont reports that one in ten Vermonters, and 15% of children under 18, live in food insecure households. These numbers are higher in Bennington County, where nearly 14% of the population lives at or below the poverty line, and 85% of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Vermont Foodbank network partners provide food to 12.6% of all residents of Bennington County, over half of whom report having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities.

Addressing food insecurity in Bennington County involves overcoming challenges specific to life in a rural community, including fewer employment opportunities that provide a living wage; a lack of health insurance; the threatened erosion of government assistance programs for food, home heating, and healthcare; a lack of reliable public transportation, making it difficult to access nutritious food; and isolation, resulting in loneliness and disengagement, with substance abuse playing an increasing role. 

These stressors of poverty can be accompanied by a lack of knowledge about health and nutrition, as well as limited cooking skills, resulting in poor diet. These “social determinants of health” have a significantly negative impact on physical and mental health