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New USDA grant will increase local access to culturally responsive food grown by Vermont farmers

Two images side by side. One image shows a person holding a chicken. The other shows a pile of corn.
Vermont Foodbank, Courtesy
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Theogene Mahoro, the farmer who runs the chicken operation at Pine Island Community Farm, will supply Vermont Foodbank with halal meat. Vermont Foodbank is able to purchase Mahoro's product through a new USDA grant.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture is receiving a $500,000 federal grant so the state can buy locally-grown food from underserved farmers, then distribute it to Vermonters facing food insecurity.

Julia Scheier with the state Agency of Agriculture says inflation and an increasingly large population of refugees has created a bigger need for accessible, local and culturally appropriate food. That's food that holds significance and meaning in someone's culture.

Scheier said that while the agency receives a lot of federal funding, this award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the first it's kind due to its emphasis on equity and diversity.

“We're excited to be moving some funding to these different partners around the state to do some direct relationship building with the farmers, and really increase their markets and purchasing power for the future as well,” she said.

Half of the grant hasn’t yet been earmarked. Farmers and nonprofits can apply for spring funding.

The other half will go toward five nonprofits trying to increase food access across the state.

Abenaki Helping Abenaki, the Intervale Center and the Vermont Foodbank are among the organizations to receive the first batch of funding.

The Vermont Foodbank is getting $61,765 to launch two new projects highlighting culturally appropriate food for people who have immigrated to Vermont, including those who came here as refugees.

“We believe food is a human right, and everyone should have access to food that they need to eat that's culturally significant to them."
Andrea Solazzo, Vermont Foodbank

The first project will support the distribution of local halal meat to community members.

Andrea Solazzo with the Vermont Foodbank says that will feed between 600 and 800 families in the Islamic community.

The meat will be sourced from Pine Island Community Farm in Colchester. The farm’s chicken operation is run by Theogene Mahoro, a Rwandan refugee who came to Vermont in 2004. He has been farming since 2015.

“We’ve heard a lot from the community that there’s a need for more halal meat,” Solazzo said. “So we are happy to be able to support that need while also supporting a local farmer.”

The second new project involves purchasing dried African corn from Janine Ndagijimana, a Tanzanian refugee who has been farming out of Colchester since 2013.

The Foodbank is buying $6,000 worth of dried corn, which Vermont Bean Crafters will grind and process for community members. Corn is a daily staple for many African families, according to Solazzo.

“We believe food is a human right, and everyone should have access to food that they need to eat that's culturally significant to them," she said. "We really value our relationships in the community and are doing our best to make sure everyone has access to the food that they want to eat."

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The Foodbank will be holding a distribution event in mid-November with Chittenden County partners and the Vermont Islamic Society.

The event will also feature Ethiopian food from Mulu’s Kitchen in Burlington.

Scheier said the USDA may be providing additional funding for this program. More details will be available in the early winter.

“We're really excited to get even more funding and to see the emphasis from USDA on equity and diversity, and really supporting our farmers around the state,” Scheier said.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Corrected: October 17, 2022 at 1:49 PM EDT
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Julia Scheier's name.
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