In the spring of 2020, as the reality of COVID-19 settled in, the Rian Fried Center (RFC) faced both a challenge and a great opportunity. As corporate food production and supermarket supply chains quickly exhibited troubling signs of instability amid global pandemic conditions, small local food producers were suddenly poised to step into this moment of uncertainty with a valuable store of knowledge and long-held commitment to community service. Early in the onset, the RFC team became involved in the national-level effort known as the Cooperative Gardens Commission (CGC). Sterling served as a CGC seed distribution hub, repackaging donated bulk seed and distributing them to community service organizations in the Northeast Kingdom. The CGC explains its structure and mission as being “. . . composed of hundreds of volunteer organizers and representatives of dozens of organizations from across the United States and Canada working as a collective to increase community food production, facilitate resource-sharing, help first-time gardeners succeed, build more resilient communities, and support existing food sovereignty projects and networks—especially in communities that were already struggling before the COVID-19 pandemic.” Inspired by CGC’s model and the momentum of emerging efforts in our own community, the College asked how it might best leverage its resource base to increase local food security, sovereignty, and resilience—for both consumers and producers.
With the Sterling kitchen closed in the wake of COVID-19, much of our typical focus on institutional food service production shifted toward the production of food for our surrounding community. We expanded our CSA program, nearly doubling our subscription rate from last year. We also recognized the persistent need, cast into sharp relief in the pandemic, to ensure this service was available to the widest range of people possible. To that end, Sterling offered CSA shares on a sliding scale, and we applied to the USDA for status as an authorized EBT/SNAP retailer, for which we were approved in early June. We have executed these services while instituting the recommended health and safety measures necessary to ensure a clean and safe work environment and food supply.
During the pandemic, food insecurity has been accompanied by job insecurity for many. Thus, in addition to these efforts to increase local food accessibility, we also sought to increase income opportunities for micro-local, start-up producers. This effort took on the form of a pilot Sterling College Food Hub. The hub functions as an add-on service for CSA subscribers, who can choose to select value-added, prepared food items from small local producers in addition to subscription vegetable and meat shares. All such purchases are eligible for EBT/SNAP payment. A small emergency grant from the Work Colleges Consortium assisted in launching this program, subsidizing the added administrative costs so that these are not passed on to consumers. Moving into the fall semester and with the return of students, these efforts will continue, with an expanded offering of winter storage crops and grains.