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POWNAL — Regular shoppers popping into the Pownal Village Market and Video on their way home from work last week were in for a surprise. Front and center as they entered sat a small refrigerator at eye level, its glass door providing a peek inside to a colorful display of blueberries, carrots, and other fresh fruits and vegetables.

A few days later, that refrigerator was empty, sold out to customers happy to add the healthy items to their shopping basket. The Village Market then awaited its scheduled delivery and restocking by Sam Stubbs and Eva Forman, summer interns at the Regenerative Food Network and rising seniors at Bennington College, which came Wednesday.

“It’s going to be awesome,” said market owner Jeff Egan, one of three local store owners participating in this new regional program designed to ensure healthy, fresh produce is available in neighborhoods where that’s not always the case.

The other two stores are Willy’s Variety and Corner Market, both in Bennington.

“What we recognize is that getting fresh produce is hard in our region because the supermarkets that sell it are in big-box land,” said James Trimarchi, director of planning at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, a key partner — among several — in turning the idea into reality. “But if you’re going from here to Williamstown, downtown Bennington or Pownal, there’s no place where you can buy a cucumber.”

SVMC saw a need. “SVMC believes that food is medicine. Healthy food keeps you healthy, and unhealthy food, not so much,” he added. So, he said, the hospital and other groups asked, “Can we work with store owners who are interested in this to actually get them cucumbers?”

Developing this program, which was initially conceived by the food insecurity project at Bennington College, was a team effort, with Connor Weis with VISTA and Faith Strahan, a Bennington College intern, working closely with SVMC. Lizz Ruffa, of Merck Forest, Northshire Grows, and a well-known force in sourcing local produce for community purchase is the link to local farms, particularly Clear Brook Farm, the group said in a news release.

Securing produce and delivering it on a regular schedule is handled by the Regenerative Food Network, an organization that is “{span}building a network of agricultural and value-added producers, food systems workers, and partner organizations in southern Vermont, western Massachusetts, and eastern New York, expanding the adoption of Regenerative Practices to enable a regional food system that provides 30% of the food needs of the Northeast’s 45 million residents by 2030 (#30by30),” according to its website.{/span}

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Backed by a grant from the Vermont Foodbank, the group purchased coolers and stands, secured the fresh produce — which will increasingly be locally sourced as the warm-weather produce is ready — and makes the deliveries to the stores. Store owners buy the produce at wholesale cost, sell it at a reasonable price, and are reimbursed for anything that spoils.

One week into the program, Trimarchi said the group is pleased with the start up, and has learned some lessons going forward. The project is secure into the fall, but hopes to sign up at least two more stores to make it more cost-effective. He said it would also be helpful if all the stores followed Pownal Market’s lead and put the fresh produce in a prominent position so customers can’t miss it.

“Pownal’s going gangbusters,” he said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the community.”

The Corner Store, which sells a lot of beer, soda, vape supplies and cigarettes, faces more challenges, he said. Regular shoppers aren’t used to stopping there for fresh produce.

“It’s not a perfect match,” he said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time for that community to shift their mindset about why you go to that store.”

The Pownal Market’s Egan said in a news release he’s been trying to stock fresh produce, but it can be challenging. Having the Regenerative Food Network deliver produce on a reliable schedule makes a significant difference.

“RFN is doing the legwork of obtaining the locally grown produce, delivering and stocking it, and keeping the inventory fresh,” he said. “They will make it easy for me to sell fresh veggies and fruit, helping our customers eat healthy.”


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