ST. ALBANS CITY – Monday night, a group of residents, business owners and farmers who gathered in city hall were all asked a simple question: What food-related headlines did they hope to see in ten years?

Answers meandered somewhat, but the visions people had were consistent.

They saw St. Albans as a possible food destination that tapped into the surrounding agricultural landscape.

They saw restaurants and grocery stores – and even a proposed co-operative store – reconfigured to sell more locally sourced foods.

They saw room made for the city’s most food insecure, a term referring to those lacking consistent access to nutritious foods.

They’re answers that, according to officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Local Foods, Local Places initiative, will go on and inform a larger action plan currently being devised by St. Albans City and the Healthy Roots Collaborative with technical support from the EPA.

Local Foods, Local Places is a federal program organized under the EPA and supported by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) and, in New England, the Northern Borders Regional Commission. The program, according to the EPA, seeks to develop local food economies as both an economic engine and as a tool for bridging gaps in food access.

Courtesy of a technical grant awarded to St. Albans City and Healthy Roots, the program came to St. Albans earlier this week on a visit meant to inform a wider action plan being devised for the city’s food economy.

An action plan will likely be delivered in a little more than two months, according to EPA officials.

Early evaluations of St. Albans City were optimistic, with officials narrowing in on the fact that St. Albans City was already well into a long-term redevelopment of its downtown.

“There’s already very mature downtown development in place,” the Office of Community Revitalization’s John Foster said during the initiative’s second day. “A lot of communities would kill for what you’re starting with.”

There were, however, still appreciable gaps and room for improvement, Foster noted, including an absence of local produce in Food City, the city’s sole grocery store, and in the Rail City Market, which does sell specialized groceries but, according to new owner Ashley Cleare, sometimes struggled to stock and sell local produce.

Foster said the EPA’s visiting group also observed other barriers for accessing locally sourced foods, such as structural issues around the cost and use of local foods, cultural stigmas around who the targeted audiences for certain foods were, or even just knowing where local foods could be found.

Those were issues local food network advocates had already wondered about ahead of the EPA’s formal presentations Monday night.

“Is it that people don’t know it’s there? Do they know how to use it?” Healthy Roots’ Johanna Setta asked during an initial Local Foods, Local Places meeting at city hall. “Is it a marketing thing?”

St. Albans’s food economy was highlighted Monday afternoon when federal officials joined representatives from St. Albans City and Healthy Roots for a tour of the community’s food sites and some of its relevant organizations.

Leading with the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery’s storefront, officials from EPA and USDA were shown what locally sourced foods could be found in St. Albans stores. Most, they noted, were value added products that, according to Franklin County Industrial Development Corp. head and St. Albans City Mayor Tim Smith, represented the region’s “number one product.”

Absent, they noted, was local produce, with Healthy Roots representatives playfully noting that Food City would stock “corn from Florida” despite a healthy display of locally sourced value-added products and despite the fact that so much corn was actually grown in Franklin and Grand Isle counties.

There was also an apparent lack of local purchasing on the part of St. Albans City’s restaurants, according to Healthy Roots’ Koi Boynton and Setta, with the exception of the city’s two bakeries – Evelyn’s On Center and Red House Sweets.

One of the issues pointed out by Healthy Roots was that farmers had a harder time aggregating products at a scale that made it cost effective for grocery stores to regularly carry their produce, something farmers would speak to later that night and during Local Foods, Local Places’ second meeting Tuesday.

Food City was the only formal grocery store highlighted on the tour, as Hannaford and Price Chopper sit outside of the city.

According to surveys taken by the EPA on Local Foods, Local Places’ first night, however, Hannaford was the most popular place to shop for groceries within the overall St. Albans community.

Two solutions brought up along the tour were highlighted at the Rail City Market and with a meeting in the Catalyst Coffee Bar, where officials met with two members of a four-person committee exploring the opening of a food cooperative within the city.

At Rail City Market, market-owner Cleare said she had some successes with selling produce sourced from the Hudak Family Farm, but that there were still some challenges with sourcing organic produce and storing it. “I’d love to work with more local produce,” Cleare said, before adding that marketing and space challenges kept the market from embracing more produce.

There was room for expansion, Cleare said, including a back area she imagined could be converted into a demonstration kitchen of some kind for teaching customers ways they could use local produce.

Meanwhile, a group of four area women had started organizing behind creating a cooperatively run grocery store in St. Albans’s western neighborhoods, where farmers would be able to bring their produce for sale in an area that, according to the cooperative’s organizers, was traditionally underserved compared to St. Albans’s downtown.

“We want to be west of Main, because it’s sometimes underserved in some ways,” Cindy Livingston, one of the organizers, told the tour group. She said that, in speaking with farmers who sold at St. Albans’s farmers market, there appeared to be interest in a co-op among Franklin County’s producers.

As for whether or not a cooperative could compete with Rail City as a local foods market, Cleare said she wasn’t sure. “It depends on the co-op,” she said. “It’s hard for me to know for sure.”

The question of food insecurity was raised along the tour by Martha’s Community Kitchen’s Brother Bob Begley and Northwest Family Foods’ Robert Ostermeyer, who gathered touring officials at Martha’s Community Kitchen for a walkthrough of St. Albans’s struggles with bridging gaps in food access.

Both organizations, they said, were serviced through Healthy Roots’ gleaning program, which skims area farms for produce that, due to appearances, would be discarded despite being completely healthy. That produce is then shuttled into schools and food shelves for use.

Ostermeyer described an inefficient system for supporting the community’s food insecure, despite what he said was an overwhelmingly positive economic benefit that came from families who, in accessing food shelves, were able to free up money spent on food for other purchases within the St. Albans community.

According to Ostermeyer, because of limits to benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), users might pass up a produce purchase at Hannaford only to pick-up that same piece of produce when it’s donated to a food shelf later. In the interim, that single piece of produce would have to be collected, sorted and trucked to the food shelf, leading to inefficiencies and arguably a less-fresh product.

He also noted that SNAP benefits lagged behind an increasing cost of food, and the ironies behind the fact that, among people’s basic needs, food seemed to be the only need “left to community organizers” who, per Ostermeyer, were increasingly older with few newcomers to take their place.

“It’s a fragile system,” Ostermeyer said. “We need to spend more time thinking about how to change that.”

Much of what was discussed in Monday’s tour would be brought to Monday’s and Tuesday’s Local Foods, Local Places meetings, where residents, business owners and producers were tasked with brainstorming solutions and improvements for St. Albans’s food economy.

EPA officials brought with them examples from past Local Foods, Local Places successes, where communities managed to organize specialized food markets and community gardens to revitalize rural communities comparable to St. Albans.

In one community in West Virginia, one of those stores would expand and be used as an anchor store behind what the EPA’s Melissa Kramer described as a “renaissance.” That move, she said, required financial support from the municipal government.

Another in rural Arizona saw, through the installation of an incubator farm and ongoing backyard gardening education, a jump-started food and agricultural economy that drew thousands from nearby metropoles like Phoenix.

Still, they warned that what worked in one community might not translate perfectly to another, though there were places where, according to Kramer and Foster, lessons could be gleaned. They said EPA would be able to connect St. Albans officials and producers to Local Foods, Local Places alumni if they were interested.

With the conclusion of Monday’s and Tuesday’s forums, the EPA will now work with St. Albans City and Healthy Roots to devise an action plan due by the end of 2019. Follow-up calls are planned, something EPA’s Kramer asked that others participate in.

Those interested in participating in follow-up conversations can reach out to Healthy Roots, Kramer said.

What that plan might look like might still be up in the air, but, according to Kramer, there was another clear advantage St. Albans had that other communities often didn’t: the people in the room for Monday’s and Tuesday’s forums.

“This is a community with a caring culture,” she said.

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