The University of Vermont has been awarded a $494,110 grant from the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement and assess a new method of food distribution -- called food boxes -- that could add to farmers’ bottom line and increase traffic for retailers while making healthy, fresh food available to a population that doesn’t normally buy directly from farms, either via farmers markets or through a community supported agriculture (CSA) co-op.
Food boxes are selections of assorted fresh produce packaged by farmers in boxes they distribute to community gathering places like country stores or libraries, which promote them at the point of purchase and through the web and social media. Unlike CSAs, food boxes are non-subscription and, in locations where they’re accepted, can be paid for with food stamps.
The program will launch beginning this summer. The grant, “Farm Fresh Food Boxes: Expanding Rural Economies Through New Markets for Farmers and Retailers,” came to UVM. It will also be used to implement food box programs in California and Washington state, providing three different settings in which to test the concept.
Extension faculty at UVM and at the University of California, Davis and Washington State University will implement the program in their respective states. The Center for Rural Studies, part of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will assess the program’s impact in all three states.
Preliminary data from a 2012 UVM Extension pilot of the food box model, which helped UVM win the grant, showed measurable benefits to the farms and retail sites that participated and to consumers.
“The pilot showed that food boxes provide new markets for farmers and bring increased sales to retail outlets,” said Jane Kolodinsky, co-project director on the grant, chair of Community Development and Agricultural Economics at UVM and director of the university’s Center for Rural Studies.
"They also make fresh, healthy food available to consumers who may not be able to afford a CSA and don’t feel comfortable at a farmers market or who live in communities that don’t have one.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch collectively issued this statement: “For more than 30 years, the University of Vermont Center for Rural Studies has successfully connected people and communities to address social, economic and resource-based challenges. The Farm Fresh Food Boxes is another outstanding example of this approach that will have real impact here in Vermont. This research will improve the economic viability of our farms -- which have been challenged by massive, out-of-state operations and national supermarket chains -- with an approach that will bring healthy food to our most rural communities.”
The other project director for the grant is Marilyn Sitaker of Batelle Memorial Institute in Washington.
The UVM grant was part of $15.6 million in grants announced by the USDA this week designed to increase prosperity in rural America through research, education, and extension programs focused on promoting rural community development, economic growth, and sustainability. All the grants were made through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Foundational program, administered by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.