The planned new Vermont Farmers’ Food Center (VFFC) in Rutland is on track to open next month.
The center at 251 West Street — being designed as a food hub that will facilitate the gathering, storage, processing, and distribution of food products originating locally and regionally — will house several organizations, including the Vermont Food Bank.
Plans also call for it to include a commercial kitchen that local educational facilities can tap into. The center already is home to the Rutland Winter Farmers’ Market, an anchor tenant.
Restoration work began in July 2012, when the three-acre site with four buildings was purchased from Alan and Edward Gartner, who are financing the $439,000 purchase.
By the end of December 2012, $55,000 had been raised from the community for refurbishments. By mid-March 2013, after including in-kind donations from professionals, contractors, building suppliers, and others, more than $175,000 was raised. (The complex dates to 1864, when it was a manufacturing foundry.)
The VFFC is expected to play a key role in the area’s economic engine and the rebuilding of an agricultural infrastructure, said Greg Cox, a West Rutland farmer and president of the center’s board. “Our number-one priority is to renovate the food-bank side.”
The outpouring of community support was sufficient to open one of the buildings in time to host the winter farmers’ market. Another third of the building will be the southwestern distribution center of the Vermont Food Bank. Other buildings may be used by businesses and as educational facilities. A commercial kitchen also is on the drawing board.
Stafford Technical Center and College of St. Joseph, both in Rutland, have expressed interested in expanding their culinary programs in ways that might involve the center, Cox added. The College of St. Joseph would like to tie the center in to the college’s degree programs, said James Lambert, the college’s director of communications.
“We have similar agreements with Stafford (Technical Center) in other programs, and would like to be able to discuss their interest in expanding it to this area,” Lambert said.
The Vermont Food Bank, Cox noted, has an accredited food-service training program currently in Burlington which is being replicated in Barre. “They want to bring the 13-week training program to Rutland,” he said.
With a commercial kitchen factoring prominently in the mix, “We plan to have a model similar to the Mad River Food Hub run by Robin Morris in Waitsfield,” Cox said. “He has a strong economic model — strong and expandable. We’ve been working with the different agricultural businesses, the farmers, bakers, and value-added people to create an atmosphere where their efficiencies can be greatly increased, and where we can link them with folks trained in the food-service industry, meeting up in the commercial kitchen.”
The commercial kitchen can play another part in incubating small food start-ups. For example, Vermont Bean Crafters, which produces vegetarian burgers, was incubated in a small commercial kitchen on the Cox farm. The company outgrew that space; because there was no other facility in the Rutland area, it is now located at the Mad River Food Hub. The company has added three full-time positions: jobs that could have belonged to Rutland had there been a facility, said Cox.
Opening the VFFC in Rutland is a “creative idea” to help curb hunger in Vermont, said John Sayles, chief executive officer of the Vermont Food Bank. “One idea — like the Rutland facility — is to be closer to agencies around the state, giving food sites and donors better access.”
Meanwhile, demands on the Vermont Food Bank keep increasing. “The network partners are all seeing a very high and increasing demand,” Sayles said. The Vermont Food Bank currently serves almost 90,000 people a year; demands were up 15 percent in 2012 over the previous year.
Visit www.www.vermontfarmersfoodcenter.org to learn more about the new center.MORE IN Rutland Business Briefs
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