UNITY, Maine — Some pretty exciting things are starting to happen in Unity, and even the federal government is taking notice.
About 2,100 people live in the small central Maine town, an agricultural center that’s home to Unity College. Despite the small population, Unity has an abundance of ideas and organizations devoted to improving the community — and thanks to a federal technical assistance grant, community leaders are going to get some major help as they decide how to keep up the good work.
“I think it’s the center of the universe,” said Sara Trunzo of Unity, who is the director of Veggies For All and a staff member at the Maine Farmland Trust. “Great stuff is happening, but community is messy. All the projects are happening on their own timeline. Let’s take a step back, and plan a little bit.”
That planning will come courtesy of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the lead funder for the competitive “Local Foods, Local Places” grant initiative. Earlier this month, Trunzo and other local leaders learned that Unity was selected to be one of just 26 communities from around the country, and the only one in New England, that will share $800,000 worth of assistance from the government.
“We’re not getting a pile of money. We’re getting outside expertise to refine the work we’re doing,” said Trunzo. “It will help take all these great ideas about food and agriculture and translate them into action.”
Gail Chase of the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments wrote the grant for the town of Unity.
Those great ideas include Veggies For All, a food bank farm that since 2010 has grown and distributed 75,000 pounds of vegetables to food-insecure people in the Unity area. They also include the Unity Barn Raisers, an active nonprofit that supports local farmers by purchasing local food for community meals; the innovative Volunteer Regional Food Pantry; and the new Unity Food Hub, designed to help local farmers enter the wholesale market.
On a snowy day recently, Trunzo stopped at the food pantry to say hello to senior citizens who had volunteered to prepare fresh vegetables, such as onions and cabbage, for the Saturday morning food bank pickups. Distribution happens just once a month, said Bob Van deVenter, the director of the food bank, and helps about 300 families from the Unity area. Cars that pull up to the drive-through window between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. on distribution day at the old Unity firehouse receive individually packed boxes that include canned and dry goods, as well as fresh vegetables from Veggies For All.
DeVenter is a volunteer at the food bank, too.
“For myself, and what I’ve taught my kids is that you always have to give back,” he said. “Giving back is key.”
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the sound of hammering and the whine of table saws was audible through the closed doors of the long-vacant former Unity Grammar School. By next spring or summer, the doors will open for the building’s reincarnation as the Unity Food Hub, an aggregation, marketing and distribution center that aims to assist farmers and increase access to local foods.
Although the operation isn’t up and running yet, the idea is going strong, according to Colleen Hanlon-Smith, who does sales, marketing and product placement for the Unity Food Hub. Member farmers can take advantage of a satellite storage facility, including a new walk-in cooler, at the Buckle Farm.
“There’s a lot of collaboration happening between these organizations,” Hanlon-Smith said as muck-boot-wearing farmhands prepared produce to take to a Boston farmers market. “Unity is a nexus with a lot of community leaders focused on agriculture.”
Leaders are excited to figure out where the planning and technical assistance grant might bring them in the near future — and are smiling to know that their hard work has been noticed.
“It’s amazing to live and work in a town of 2,000 people, and have our community recognized nationally,” Trunzo said.