Sterling Alumna (‘01) Theresa Snow, Founder and Director of Salvation Farms, conveys the origin of her non-profit and explores the practical and ethical importance of food surplus management. This conversation reveals the multifaceted potential of gleaning and surplus management activities, which serve as an eye-opening and activating type of experiential service learning while also supporting more equitable access to Vermont’s bounty of fresh produce. Theresa also speaks about her first-in-the-nation statewide study of edible food remaining on farms, and how to appropriately integrate technology and data to reveal supply-demand dysfunction and support more full food utilization for the benefit of farmers, eaters, and the environment. But in the end, she makes and defends some important claims about how change really happens — and, despite all the good work that Salvation Farms and its organizational partners have done, Theresa doesn’t view institutions as the most important change agents.
[02:58]-Salvation Farms origins; basic needs to eat; food supply chain
[14:40]-definition of gleaning; experiential component; access to food
[20:15]-first in the nation state-wide study of edible food remaining on farms
[27:44]-technology, data and gleaning
[:33:29]-value of community
Theresa Snow TranscriptOPENING CREDITS: [:
Welcome to Emergency to Emergence, a podcast produced by Sterling College. I'm Nakasi Fortune and I'm Dakota LaCroix. This podcast intends to engage in spirited, heart-centered dialog about intersecting, eco-social emergencies, featuring the voices and perspectives of people purposefully, engaging in ecological thinking and action, while fostering active community engaged responses, that offer hope.Nakasi Fortune: [:he founded salvation farms in:
In the work that she leads, Theresa has a steadfast conviction for the responsible stewardship and use of our natural resources with a parallel dedication, to the engagement of individuals across the socioeconomic spectrum. Theresa, thank you so much for taking time out of your day um, to come have this conversation with us.
And I know you're, you're joining us from downtown Martinsville. Is that correct?Theresa Snow: [:
That is correct. Yes.Dakota La Croix : [:
Yes. Thank you so much, Theresa for being here.Nakasi Fortune: [:
Definitely, you know, what inspired you to become involved in agriculture and the way that you are?Theresa Snow: [:
Well, I, um, I would say some of my earliest memories are eating, raspberries in the backyard and peas from the family garden and chasing loose pigs around the yard, and, um, you know, helping, what I thought was helping my grandparents hay on their dairy farm, but, you know, probably, maybe being in the way, um, you know, so, you know, agriculture, um, you know, as I just said are some of my earliest memories and I, um, I feel really connected to both the environment here in Vermont and the working landscape and the idea of, um, subsistence living and local living. Um, I think that, there are basic essentials in our lives and they're really land-based. We need food and we need water. Um, and we need some form of shelter to stay warm or cool. And I think that that all lends itself to the foundation of culture, which is, um, agriculture. We aren't really nomadic anymore. Um, so, so what does it mean to meet our basic needs? And I see that as, as agriculture.Dakota La Croix : [:
Your organization is called Salvation Farm's. What's the origin of that, and what does salvation mean to you?Theresa Snow: [:
Well, so salvation farms, the name really acknowledges that farms are, were, and always will be our salvation again, to my first answer, you know, we really aren't a nomadic people, and so that means to meet basic needs. Uh, we need to, uh, be working in some sort of harmony with the natural environment to meet again, our basic needs essentially to eat and, you know, without farms at this point we don't eat and, you know, with, um, climate change and the instability and the global national supply chain. We need to have local farms if we're going to, uh, really meet, you know, our, our basic need to eatNakasi Fortune: [:
And what exactly does Salvation farm's do?Theresa Snow: [:
So, salvation farms has a, a little bit of a jargony complex mission. Uh, if I'm giving,Dakota La Croix : [:
Sounds like life!Theresa Snow: [:
Yes, if I'm giving a presentation, I usually talk for about 15 minutes before I share our mission to give context around it, but our mission is to build increased resilience in Vermont's food system, through agricultural surplus managers. Most people don't realize because we're so disconnected as a population from agriculture. Um, that there's a lot of surplus that, um, is generated when, when food is produced and, uh, for, for varying reasons that edible quality, uh, nutritious food remains on farms. Uh, and so what, what salvation farms is, uh, working to do. Is look at how we can make a supply chain, you know, uh, let's say, um, cleaning and packing of food or processing of food or storing and transportation of food. Um, looking at how we can address supply chain gaps or issues that shorten a supply chain, so the distance of where the food is produced to where it is consumed in the, and the amount of places where it could be consumed or eaten, by actually looking at the surplus. If, if we say, okay, there's a surplus fluid milk, or there's cold dairy animals that, uh, uh, you know, is a valuable protein source or there's a lot of fruit and vegetables that just aren't leaving the farm.
So what do we need to address between the farm and the eater locally to actually get that food, uh, to people, and if we look at this surplus, it's it, most of it doesn't meet market specifications, which are, can be pretty stringent. So that means that we need to, uh, address issues of labor, um, address issues of, you know, mechanized processing, uh, and look at where we don't have infrastructure to literally move , process, store and then make available this food to local people.Dakota La Croix : [:
Theresa, I wonder, is there a moment in your life that you first witnessed this sense of dysfunction in the system? Can you recall any moments that kind of led you on this pathway or maybe relay some of these touchstones to our listeners?Theresa Snow: [:
Uh, yes. You know, I think it's like, uh, you know, life is a culmination of experiences and, and, and struggles and aha's. When I , I always like to say, you know, the, my, my childhood or younger years, you know, it was rooted in this agricultural kind of foundation, whether it was, uh, parents that were doing small-scale kind of homesteading, uh, to my grandparents' dairy farm. And then I like to say, well, then I was a teenager, uh, where I was really challenging, a lot of things, but didn't know why I was challenging things. And I have to really applaud Sterling, uh, college, uh, which is where I ended up choosing to go to college. Um, couple of years after high school, and it started to ground my challenging of things that I didn't understand, but I didn't feel comfortable with, um, in some foundation of understanding global exploitation and oppression of both the natural environment and people. So that was the first thing, but then after Sterling, which of course taught me a lot about, um, you know, uh, relationship with your human and natural community and how to work in, in some harmony. But also in a role of stewardship, but not being in dominance like stewardship and more and more in a harmony kind of way.years of age, and this was in:
Um, left them without resources. And then here they are in the, in this huge city, um, where there, there isn't a landscape that can generate subsistence for them, and coming from Vermont, coming out of Sterling college. It was just, it was so clear that we, as a culture are really unprepared to, um, attend to, or meet some of our most basic needs because we have bought into this Dom, this dominating monetary economy and, ironically, I was also exposed in this AmeriCorps period to this idea of gleaning and, um, which gleaning is going to farms, at least in modern times is going to farms, harvesting what they're not going to sell and making that available to the community primarily to through charitable, charitable food sites, like food shelves, um, and I didn't come home from AmeriCorps saying I'm going to do something about this. Um, I actually really struggled, uh, for probably two years or more. Um, with, I think degrees of post-traumatic stress. Um,Dakota La Croix : [:
I would imagine there's an emotional toll that would take on you as well.Theresa Snow: [:
Absolutely, and prior to that, um, you know, again, connected with Sterling college, I had learned about, uh, biotechnology and genetic engineering and had done some activism around, you know, um, know, not patenting life and the control of our seed supply and, uh, really trying to challenge corporate control, um, of the food supply. And so I was grappling with all of this, that, again, we as people and we as communities, for some reason have relinquished our agency, to meet our basic needs. We even trusted them in this other system, and I happen to be working, um, at Pete's greens at the time, my third year of working at the farm there in Craftsbury, Greensboro, and, um, uh, Pete Johnson, the owner of the farm really recognized that I was struggling and that I, and he had a conversation with me about, well, what do you really want to do? He enjoyed having me as an employee, knew I worked hard and that I was proud of the work I did on the farm, but really recognized that I needed to contribute more to the world, and he just said, I have extra greens. Can you do anything with those? And, and then hence, you know, there was there, it was born.
Oh, I could harvest your extra food and maybe I could engage Sterling college students to help me harvest it, and I could put that into the community and have people fed with that food that, um, you know, you're, that aren't your paying markets that you aren't reaching and that isn't going to compete directly with your market, so I can start to reconnect the community with local farms, and engage people on a farm so that we can start to realize that farms are our salvation, um, and build more comfort and familiarity with what is local and seasonally acclimated here.Nakasi Fortune: [:
So, Theresa it's clear that, you know, gleaning offers a bridge between farmers and community members. Can you speak more to those connections that are made between the farmers and the community members through the work that you do?Theresa Snow: [:
Well, salvation farm's got its start in gleaning. The work we do goes far beyond that, now we'll still incorporate gleaning. Um, but what gleaning offers is an and what I, I feel in the organization believes is to kind of the, the powerful element of, of gleaning, uh, is the experiential education component. So, uh, gleaning happens with community members, community members engage on the farm and, they start, um, having observations and questions about why is this food still here? Why isn't it making it to market? They start questioning things about the food system in a way that most eaters don't when they go to the supermarket and they prepare dinner, or they go to a restaurant, there they're being exposed to a part of, uh, a system that they engage in every single day, possibly multiple times in the day, but that they never see, and so, so if, um, a volunteer, you know, has driven by a farm most of their life, When they've actually stepped in onto the field or into the fields of this farm, you know and engage with different community members that they may not have ever engaged with that, you know, now driving by the farm, they're always going to be reminded of that feeling, in the field and, and those questions that they have about, you know, this beautiful edible, nutritious food, remaining in this, in this field, you know, they're going to be reflecting on their own choices as, as eaters and as consumers, and they're going to start and many do, um, looking to invest local or buying from that farm that they've worked with.
Uh, we've measured. Behavior change in volunteers, some, you know, start composting at home or try to reduce their food waste at home, but the other piece is that not, not only is it the impact, uh, the experiential education impact for the volunteer in the field, but it's also that opportunity for those eaters who have, um, access now to this food, whether it's someone going to the food shelf or senior housing site. They're given an opportunity that is financially risk-free to not just access something like a carrot, which is familiar, but to try kale or arugula or try kohlrabi. Um, and, and, and we believe that that opportunity and experience creates again more comfort and familiarity and impact, and it, and it helps the community feel more capable of eating what it's local farms produce, if they choose to consume that food, or if they have to consume that food, if all of a sudden we don't have the option of the diversity of a global supply chain, we're building this familiarity through this work.
Um, one, there's been a couple of powerful moments, uh, that I can recollect. You know, delivering beet greens to a senior housing facility and being physically embraced by elder women who were so thankful to see beet greens come in, um, because they hadn't had them since their childhood and you know, other volunteers, uh, Love the story. A woman before going to church was in the field, probably in her sixties, uh, joined by a young man, probably around 15, who was doing community service as part of restorative justice work, and to watch these two people, um, engage in this, this really important community work and in conversations that they never would have, of ever had, um, so that's for us, we feel that the experiential education piece, the connecting community to each other, uh, that, that that's the real power of this work. And that's, that creates long-term change. While, it is slow change, you know, that creates long- term change in agency, in our community. Um, it creates social networks that create more stability in our communities, and this work also creates short-term impact by making, you know good use of local resources to help people meet their nutritional needs today.Dakota La Croix : [:
Can you share maybe something about the food system that you've seen and witnessed that like somebody, like myself or some of our listeners who might not have any idea of why this work is needed.Theresa Snow: [:icultural and food system. In:Dakota La Croix : [:
Oh, wow!Theresa Snow: [:
How, how much edible food was remaining on Vermont farms each year, and, um, we surveyed farmers and based on farmer estimates compared with census data. Uh, we uncovered. That approximately 14.3 million pounds of edible vegetables and berries remain on the state's farms each year. Now that doesn't include tree fruit because we had no orchards answer the survey. So that number could be much higher. So the reason that, uh, food loss on farms occurred. Um, particularly with fruits and vegetables is, um, that again, product doesn't always meet market specifications. Uh, and for, for farmers, everything is economical. If they don't have enough labor or they don't have affordable labor, or if they aren't confident that they have a market for said crop, they're just not going to harvest it. Farmers often produce enough to make sure that they can meet all of their markets. So that means they often produce a little extra that's insurance for them, and you know, if anybody's garden, they've seen that, you know, some zucchini is perfectly straight and some is crooked. Some, you know, carrots come out, you know, different shaped as well, and so there's a lot of edible food that doesn't necessarily make it into the marketplace doesn't necessarily make it to processors. Um, because we all want this perceived idea of perfection and because processing, uh, is often mechanized, uh, it cannot accommodate things that are inconsistent and shape and size. So again, there's a lot more reasons, but it does have a lot to do with the marketplace and economics. Why a farmer might leave some food in the field or they might harvest, but not be able to find an outlet for that food.Nakasi Fortune: [:
And Theresa can you speak to some of the challenges that you face, um, or that salvation farms face while you're doing this work?Theresa Snow: [:
Yeah, I think that, uh, as a non-profit with a pretty innovative. Uh, mission, uh, we're often misunderstood because of the complexities of our mission and approach. People can understand gleaning and it's such a feel good thing. But when you start talking about supply chain and labor and the need for, uh, processing and or workforce development or market alternative development. It's just, it's just a degree of complication that people tend not to think about and with it being a non-profit expect that you, you know, have somewhat of a narrow scope. You know you just do You know you don't think about, um, the system as a whole necessarily, and all of the levers that you can pull. If, If, surplus food is the thing, but what we want to do is not necessarily just serve, um, a perceived vulnerable population today, but we want to address the fact that we, as a whole are vulnerable, uh, to the instability of global supply chains. Uh, that's really big. And, and, and particularly in a funding sphere where. You need to have impact on yearly basis. Uh, you can't create systems change in a year. Uh, and so that has been some of our biggest challenge as how does this organization, move from something that's very marketable, like gleaning, which is often very rooted in charity, as opposed to creating large, large, and long-term systemic and social change through experiential education and developing infrastructure, uh, able workforce, et cetera, to actually increase the state's ability, to use food that's here to feed ourselves. And not just do this in a way that salvation farms becomes an Uber organization, but that we're actually leveraging and connecting supply chain or different unique players. Uh, so that it's really interconnected. And that we use this as a model. For other areas of the state and we could provide our expertise for those other areas of the state, and then they can connect regionally, but then also act as a model nationally, you know, surplus food is not an anomaly to Vermont in any way. This is happening anywhere food is being produced.Nakasi Fortune: [:
Since you started this work, um, you know, with salvation farms and even before with Americorps, have you seen, um, an increase or decrease in the amount of surplus foods that they are?Theresa Snow: [:
Hmm, I think that's a really hard question to answer because honestly, nobody really knows how much is out there. Um, farmers don't track what they don't sell. Yeah. So, salvation farms is interesting in, uh, doing another much larger food loss on farms research project. I would like for it to be multi-year because, um, there's different market and season realities year to year. Um, so, uh, to actually capture the reality that's happening on farms and the variability again, year to year, it would be important to look at these things, uh, for multiple years. We're also interested in collecting data in multiple ways, uh, so that we could really get a clearer picture of what's left in the field versus what's, uh, harvested, but not sold. Um, and, and what are some of the, um, conditioner cosmetic issues, particularly with the food that is harvested, but not sold. This would really let Vermont know what is needed in a supply chain sense. Uh, for example, if we know that, uh, typically in a particular region, within a certain set of time, there's a lot of sweet corn and that, uh, this other region won't have sweet corn for another three weeks. Well then we can be more prepared to move it to that region. Or if we know that typically these are the months that farmers are harvesting winter squash and that there's X tonnage of winter squash that just can't go to market and its whole raw form. Then we can start to say, well, then we need to have infrastructure to puree this winter squash. And let's actually find a way to put it into cans because that's a shelf stable product, which then decreases the vulnerability of the supply chain. And doesn't demand more energy inputs by creating a short term shelf, stable product, like frozen foods. So this, this research can really inform how prepared we want to be, or can we be to feed ourselves with what our farms produce?Nakasi Fortune: [:
I know that after launching the Vermont gleaning collective a number of independent gleaning programs in Vermont,, um, salvation farms developed, I think, a web application to support, the collective effort. Can you tell us more about, you know, how technology has either aided or complicated your, the work that you do?Theresa Snow: [:resented itself in, uh, early:
And yes, they'll likely be working a lot with one organization, but they might also be exposed to three, but this platform also allows for the aggregation of data, so that no matter what organization is gleaning, uh, all of the information is being tracked in the same way, so we can see, uh, what crops are being collected at what volumes, from what regions in the state, what time period and what collection method is it, uh, is it?Dakota La Croix : [:
Oh, that's powerful.Theresa Snow: [:
Yes. So we can actually that's some of the data, like that's really powerful that lets us know that last year, only 36% of what the Vermont gleaning collective gleaned, actually was field gleaned. The other was already picked by the farmer and that tells us a lot as a state of, well, what's going on in the marketplace that these farmers can't sell this food that they've already picked, and I think that people have, um, Undervalued the knowledge that Gleaners have both about farms and agriculture, but also about community needs and how food can move and short supply chains. And they should be central to any re-localization, reliable, local food conversations and resilience.Dakota La Croix : [:
And Theresa, would you tell us more about some of the projects and inspirations and actionable things that you and salvation farms are doing beyond gleaning?Theresa Snow: [:
Sure. So, uh, research is one we've done, uh, a handful of research around food loss on farm. Uh, demand for local produce. Uh, what are the barriers to institutions and charitable food sites using local food? Um, how can we displace importing food, uh, that we could replace with local food, whether maybe it's processed food, we've done several minimal processing projects and programs where we're taking surplus and, uh, with volunteers or workforce development participants, um, making a frozen food product. Um, we've done some large scale, uh, surplus. Uh, food hub work, where we've been aggregating tons of, uh, harder crops like apples and winter squash and potatoes and carrots, uh, cleaning and packing those and making those available and larger. Uh, volumes, but in smaller pack sizes so that they're easier to inventory and distribute. And that would be in service mostly to the charitable food system, but possibly also into institutions like hospitals and schools and prisons. Uh, we have worked with, um, In workforce development. Uh, we did some work in one of our state's prisons for several years, working, uh, with an inmate population where we provided them a working in learning opportunity to kind of pilot this idea of if there was a labor force. Could we, could we Vermont manage the volume of surplus that we have, or, or what is the infrastructure and labor that we do need? And can we do it in a dignifying way that provides the laborers, um, added skills and experience? We've also done this through workforce development and our surplus crop food hub that we were operating in Winooski, uh, working with individuals with barriers to employment. So there's a lot of things. Lot of, and again, systems thinking there's a lot of levers that we can pull by using agricultural surplus, both to address supply chain issues. Also, labor force needs, um, purposeful work, uh, and we can do this in a way that, uh, local farmers can feed more local people.Dakota La Croix : [:
I wonder, how did you discover the value of community and how is it influencing your current aspirations and Salvation farm's current aspirations?Theresa Snow: [:
That's a such a wonderful question. Um, cause I feel I've described myself as like an outer electron that jumps from like atom to atom. Um, and so I think being someone who has that adaptability, um, there's appreciation in community and that it takes all types and it's really appealing to be able to work with and engage and appreciate all types. And that that really is community. But the other thing is that, you know, organizations don't make change, people make change, and if salvation farms I've often described, uh, could be the rock that hits the pond, and, and it is that ripple effect that actually creates the change, like that's the community, that's the people, that's the experiential education, and that's the inspiration in our house that we hope, uh, to provide and share. And, or there's a quote that's really inspired me, and it, it, it goes, if, if you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together, and I think that really embodies ah, community. And the fact that looking at short-term versus long-term that yes, we can do good for people who are struggling today, but if we can't realize that their struggle is all of our struggles, Then we're actually not creating any longterm change.Nakasi Fortune: [:
Teresa, thank you again for taking time out of your day, uh, to join, and talk to us about, uh, the work that salvation farms is doing and just how incredibly important it is and theDakota La Croix : [:
Yeah.Nakasi Fortune: [:
Connections and the community that you're building, um, with, with gleaning and, and all of the other parts of this wonderful organization, so thank you again.Dakota La Croix : [:
Yeah. Thank you, Theresa. Truly inspiring all of the different levels in which you're engaging with this work. Thank you so much for being with us.Theresa Snow: [:
Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.CLOSING CREDITS: [:
If you enjoyed this conversation, do come back for the commendation. We'll spend a few more minutes with our most recent guests identifying the specific works that inspire them. So you can route further draw new sources of nourishment and connect to the emergence of vital possibilities.
And before we come to a close Sterling, acknowledges that the land on, which we gather, places now known as Vermont and Kentucky are the traditional and unceded territories of several indigenous peoples. The Abenaki in the north and the Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Osage people to the south. We also learn in and from. A range of landscapes that belonged to other indigenous peoples and more than human kin. As we seek deeper reciprocal relationships with nature, we respect and honor the place-based and cultural wisdom of indigenous ancestors and contemporaries. Words of acknowledgement and intention, or just a first step. We must match them with acts of respect and repair.
Thanks so much for listening, you can subscribe to emergency, to emergence wherever you listen to podcasts. And a very special thanks to Sterling alum, Fern, Maddie, for her musical creations. For more information on how Sterling is advancing ecological thinking and action, visit www.sterlingcollege.edu.
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