Food+Co-ops: VT Farm to Plate Network Generates Collective Impact

Timeline of Farm to Plate progress in 2013. Photo courtesy VT Farm to Plate.
Timeline of Farm to Plate progress in 2013. Credit VT Farm to Plate.

Imagine you are in Paris, in a room full of intelligent, informed people discussing the issues of the day. It is the early 1600s and you are in one of the few social spheres that allows for female leadership. You are in a salon. Perhaps there is art on the walls of the gathering room, and a theater performance. When you arrive, you are announced to the room.

Fast forward to 2013, and it turns out you are actually in a breakout session at one of the most innovative food system conferences in the country. This “salon” is exploring what it will take to connect the dots most effectively between producers and consumers of local/regional food. The backdrop is the 3rd Annual Gathering of Vermont’s Farm to Plate Network. Over 250 representatives of the 300+ member Network attended. Members of the Farm to Plate Network encompass all types and scales of agricultural-related production and processing businesses, government entities, educational institutions, distributors, retailers, and dozens of non-profits from food justice to technical assistance providers. This Network is weaving together all components of Vermont’s food system to strengthen the working landscape, build the resilience of farms, improve environmental quality, and increase local food access for all Vermonters.

Not Just a Conference, but an Ecosystem for Action

Balancing Act – Farm to Plate attendees “deep dive” into a conversation about affordable food, livable wages, and business viability Credit: VT Farm to Plate
Balancing Act – Farm to Plate attendees “deep dive” into a conversation about affordable food, livable wages, and business viability
Credit: VT Farm to Plate

What’s not to like? But how does a conference translate into action and results? Well, the first thing you notice is that all of the activities and teams in the network are organized around leverage points that were identified in the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan. In 2009, legislation tasked the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund with the creation of a ten-year Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, to increase economic development and jobs in Vermont’s food and farm sector and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters.

Plans are nice; they sit on the shelf next to the scrapbooks. Right? Or maybe one organization has a plan to meet its goals. The Farm to Plate Strategic Plan is different, and it’s different because of the Farm to Plate Network.

Vermont legislators are recognized and share insights with Farm to Plate Credit: VT Farm to Plate
Vermont legislators are recognized and share insights with Farm to Plate
Credit: VT Farm to Plate

Take the meat sector for example. Over a two and a half year period, the Network’s Meat Processing Task Force has facilitated collaboration between livestock slaughter and processing stakeholders to coordinate business and production technical assistance. This team–on which NOFA-VT is a key player–is proactively addressing the growing demand for sustainably raised meat from nearby, and Vermont’s meat sector is expanding. Through the learning and networking that took place at task force meetings, Black River Produce was able to make connections with national industry leaders that influenced the successful opening of their meat processing facility in the former Ben & Jerry’s plant in North Springfield last spring.

A Seven Days article, published 8/14/13, noted that Black River employs 155 people and that they recently hired skilled meat cutters. Bear in mind that, according to Vermont Department of Labor and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2000 and 2010 employment in Springfield dropped more than 10 times faster than the statewide average. Not only that, but the median family income growth rate in Springfield from 2000 to 2009 was half that of the state of Vermont, based on Vermont Tax Department statistics. So when a 40,000-square-foot building shifts from sitting dormant for five years to being the backdrop for a 25-year-old emerging leader saying to Seven Days, “This is a company I can retire from. This plant is only going to grow,” you can start to appreciate the significance of private sector leadership and public-private partnerships in a context like the VT Farm to Plate Network.

Designed for Impact—with follow-through

Flipchart from the Connecting the Dots “deep dive” session focused on improving market signals between producers and consumers of local/regional food Credit: Eric DeLuca
Flipchart from the Connecting the Dots “deep dive” session focused on improving market signals between producers and consumers of local/regional food
Credit: Eric DeLuca

Stories are great; I feel good already. But how do you generate (and measure!) impact across a 300+ organization Network? For the last couple years the nonprofit and the foundation worlds have begun giving serious attention to a framework outlined in Stanford Social Innovation Review by Kania and Kramer called Collective Impact. The framework outlines five characteristics of impactful, large-scale change initiatives. Among them is the presence of a backbone organization.

The VT Sustainable Jobs Fund has taken on this role, not only in terms of state statute, but also as a convener and facilitator of the broader Network. The Network, in turn, is intentionally cultivating the other four characteristics, which are:

  • Common agenda
  • Shared measurement
  • Mutually reinforcing activities
  • Continuous communication

The Network features six working groups that collaboratively address specific leverage points such as farmland access & stewardship, aggregation & distribution, and consumer education & marketing. These groups, as well as six crosscutting teams, are made up of representatives from Network member businesses and organizations working on the ground in these areas; NOFA Vermont is proud to be engaged in seven of the 12 groups, including those listed above.

All Eyes on Vermont
Assuming that all of this engaged planning and coordinated action isn’t too good to be true, it stands to reason that other states have become curious about Vermont’s approach to local/regional food system development. In 2012, the New England states each sent representatives to the VT Farm to Plate Network Gathering to see what the buzz was all about. In 2013 they sent delegations that celebrated interstate collaborations like a new partnership between Black River Meats and Rhode Island family business Daniele, Inc. to produce prosciutto regionally.

It’s easy for fans anywhere (read: food system development leaders and passionate consumers) to track development in the VT Farm to Plate Network through the Vermont Food System Atlas—the “Google” of Vermont’s food system. The Atlas features thousands of resources including farm and producer stories and videos, job listings, data, and a map searchable by people, location, keyword, and category, in addition to all sections of the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan. So stay tuned; remember, this is only year three of a 10-year journey!

: Farm to Plate Network members reflect on conversations at the Gathering Credit: VT Farm to Plate
: Farm to Plate Network members reflect on conversations at the Gathering. Credit: VT Farm to Plate

Eric DeLucaFood+Co-ops is a monthly series curated by NOFA-VT member Eric DeLuca. Eric serves on the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Board and previously served on the Vermont Agriculture Innovation Center Board, which together have driven over $4M of investment in the Vermont working lands economy since 2010. Eric managed the International Year of Cooperatives for the US through the National Cooperative Business Association. He is currently partnering with UVM Continuing & Distance Education, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, NOFA-VT and other VT food system leaders to create the first higher ed certificate program focused on food hub management in the country. Eric chairs the VT Farm to Plate Producer and Processor Association Support Task Force and serves on the VT Farm to Plate Financing Crosscutting Team, which is incubating Slow Money VT.

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