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Area Gardens, Farmers Markets Seek National Grant To Expand Programs

The Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market at the city's Common
Facebook: Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market
The Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market at the city's Common

With spring upon us, a handful of area farmers markets and gardening groups are in the running for grants to help them expand their programs.The Downtown Pittsfield Farmers’ Market is entering its fourth season and manager Jess Vecchia says it’s been quite a journey.

“Year one we really needed to get people to buy into it,” Vecchia said. “We needed the vendors to take a risk with us. Everything was an experiment. It was an experiment for us. It was an experiment for the community and we asked everybody to take that leap with us. And they did.”

After lining tents across a city parking lot, the weekly market now sets up shop during the warmer months at the renovated Pittsfield Common, which features a playground, splash pad and outdoor pavilion. In 2015 it announced a winter program so the market could run year-round. To continue its growth, the market has applied for a Seeds of Change grant that could total $20,000. Vecchia says it would allow for an expansion of its double value program.

“It’s a money matching program for folks that are using SNAP – which is a former foods stamp program, WIC and Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition benefits,” she explained. “What we did was match their benefits. With SNAP we gave up to $20 per market day per person. If they wanted to spend $20 of their benefits, we gave them $40 to spend at the market. We matched dollar for dollar with WIC and Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition benefits. It increased the purchasing power for our low-income community members to buy healthy foods. It also increased sales significantly for our farmers and food producers because we had more folks shopping at the market.”

The program is currently funded by sponsors and similar grants. In addition, Vecchia says the downtown farmers market hopes to hire more young people involved with the anti-violence organization Pittsfield Community Connection. She says they hope to bring at least three young people on as this year’s market crew to work with roughly 30 vendors.

“Hiring young people to work for the market and pay them every Saturday,” Vecchia explained. “They choose to have a positive experience and get paid to do so. It’s a workforce training program and it’s been really successful. Last year we had some really great hires.”

The market operates on a $50,000 budget, not including the double value program. NeighborWorks of Western Vermont, a housing organization, is one of about 300 groups involved in Project Vision in Rutland, Vermont. NeighborWorks Executive Director Ludy Biddle says the city’s northwest neighborhood has suffered from opioid addiction, blight and floods from Hurricane Irene. To improve the area, she says the group is seeking a Seeds of Change grant to bolster a community garden and make it an educational resource.

“Our plan is to put in a lot of vegetable gardens in this spring,” Biddle said. “And then use two plots for students, under the tutelage of master gardeners and farmers, grow and hopefully sell vegetable out of those plots. It’s following the curriculum that’s established in the school system. Some of the participants will include elementary students in a program called Tapestry, which is a summer program that is an extension of the after-school program that runs during the year.”

The Friends of Hiland Hall Garden in North Bennington is also seeking a grant to expand its work, according to Education Director Kristen Blaker.

The Friends of Hiland Hall Gardens Education Director Kristen Blaker explains how a Seeds of Change grant could help the group.

“Right now, our focus is working with the Village School of North Bennington, Head Start of Bennington and the Vermont School for Girls,” Blaker said. “We service all of these groups in the gardens and they grow a large vegetable plot along with herbs and flowers and learn about all about seed-to-plate. They learn how to grow from the seed, what to do with it to maintain it, how to harvest it and how to whip it up into some really tasty food. We do this is in a very, creative fun-loving way so we can hopefully inspire healthy eating and the naturalist within all of our students.”

The Good Earth Farm and Store in Brandon, Vermontis also seeking a grant to expand its teaching gardens.

More than 850 applications have been submitted for a Seeds of Change grant. Online voting, which runs through April 18, will determine the top 50 projects from which the 24 recipients will be selected. According to its website, the organic seed distributor has awarded more than $600,000 to recipients that have in turn grown 90 tons of produce.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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