UNITY, Maine — Ten years ago, a group of young Waldo County farmers became aware of a disturbing situation in the bucolic landscape around them. In a region of the state that is rich in agricultural land, one in seven people were considered food insecure, meaning they didn’t know when or if their next meal would come.
Tim Libby, then a 24-year-old recent University of Maine graduate, was working on a small family farm when he read a heartbreaking 2007 series of articles about hunger in Maine by public interest journalist Naomi Schalit. What he learned really bothered him.
“I was part of the up-and-coming, celebrated family farm movement. And I was a little irked by the poverty issues happening in the same community,” Libby said. “There were good farms in the area, run by good people, but it was a strange contrast, in my opinion. I felt like a lot of the folks in the area were being left behind.”
Libby and his friends decided they wanted to use their ability to grow vegetables to help solve the hunger problem. He came up with the perfect name: “Veggies For All,” which simply described his belief that everyone should have access to good, fresh produce, no matter how much money they did or didn’t have.
Everybody deserves to have vegetables, he thought. It was a big dream.
“But I figured, why not try?” Libby recalled.
A decade later, Veggies For All, which eventually became a nonprofit food bank farm now based in Unity and run as a program of the Belfast-based Maine Farmland Trust, has worked hard to live up to its moniker. With the help of volunteers — 175 last summer alone — the organization has grown nearly 150,000 pounds of vegetables over the years, mostly storage crops, such as potatoes, carrots, onion, winter squash and cabbages, that are distributed through nine partner food pantries.
The produce helps feed about 1,500 low-income people living in 25 towns, so it has a broad reach. The way the vegetables are sourced is unique, too. The organization’s farmers and volunteers plant and tend plots of land located around the town of Unity, some of which is privately owned and previously underutilized. Other vegetables — 12,000 pounds worth last year — are gleaned from the fields of local farms and businesses, such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow.
‘A win-win situation’
“It’s added a lot to us,” Bob VanDeventer, who runs the Volunteer Regional Food Pantry in Unity, said of Veggies For All. The food bank farm gives his pantry more than 15,000 pounds per year of fresh produce. “For many of the people we serve, especially seniors, fresh vegetables are something that you don’t often get. I would say that it’s a win-win situation — the fresh vegetables are key.”
Still, 10 years is a long time in the life of a small nonprofit, and this year will bring some changes to Veggies For All. Most notably, Libby and longtime director Sara Trunzo have stepped down recently to pursue other options. Replacing their roles is Khris Flack, who has been with Veggies for All for nearly a year. Flack, 30, came to Maine because he and his fiancee found an affordable parcel of land in Swanville to build their homestead, which they are calling Sight Unseen Woods. And when he learned Veggies For All was hiring, he got excited.
“I started and helped to manage a project similar to Veggies For All in northern Vermont,” he said. “I’d always had my eye out for a way I could keep going with this work.”
The work, he said, is close to his heart. Flack, a thoughtful man who already looks right at home in Unity with his big woolen hat and his older-model Subaru station wagon, said he has something in common with some of the Veggies For All clients.
“I grew up in a house that was arguably food insecure. I didn’t have a particularly stable situation,” he said. “And I’ve also had the experience of seeing what can be done with a piece of ground and some seeds.”
Flack would love to help other people share in that experience, if he can. Last summer, the organization has a pilot community garden program located on a plot of land behind the food pantry in downtown Unity, and he is interested in figuring out a way to add more community gardens to the mix. In Vermont, the project he started featured community gardens that operated more on a work-trade model.
“The more time you put in, the more food you take home. That worked out really well,” he said. “If there was a way to do it at Veggies For All, it would be really cool.”
Community gardens can be run on different models, but what worked in Vermont was having many people share the labor in one big garden, instead of splitting up a parcel of land into individual plots. That way, gardeners with more experience can help newbies figure out what needs to be done. It also is a great way to strike up a conversation with your gardening neighbor and get to know them better.
“Truthfully, we don’t really know what happens to the food [now] after it gets distributed to people,” Flack said. “That’s another reason why clients getting involved in the growing is important. There’s so much informal exchange. You learn so much from each other while you’re weeding or hoeing.”
Part of the answer
Additionally, having community gardens would allow Veggies For All to diversify the produce they grow, branching out from the long-lasting storage crops primarily grown so far. Right now, they concentrate on storage crops because the food bank distributions are often held on a monthly basis, and vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, string beans and zucchini wouldn’t keep. Flack hopes that encouraging clients to work in the garden alongside volunteers and staff could be empowering, too.
“It isn’t about help. It’s about support,” he said. “Learning how to see your community as a place of potential abundance rather than scarcity. … After 10 years, there’s a lot of interest in transcending the charity model. I can’t help but be curious. What does it take to get people to feel like they’re part of the answer?”
Flack is quick to add that Veggies For All is not planning to discontinue its longstanding mission of growing vegetables for the hungry. He knows how many cascading and complicated issues can be a part of food insecurity. So does Sara Trunzo, the longtime director who left Maine recently to pursue a songwriting career in Nashville, Tennessee, where she hopes to tell stories inspired by the people she met doing service work in rural Maine.
“Anti-poverty work is about changing systems and ending oppression. It’s about bigger policy shifts, like increasing the minimum wage and increasing the standards of living that we’re willing to tolerate for the most vulnerable people in our community,” she said.
And yet, the poverty she saw in Unity was often about much smaller things, too. Trunzo, 31, worked quite a bit with VanDeventer and the food pantry when she was in Unity and saw how small problems snowballed into crisis for families living on the margin or just on the edge of getting by.
“In my experience, folks were able to stop coming to the food pantry, and then one little thing changed: Their transmission goes, they have a medical bill, a grandchild moves in, and man, they are back at the food pantry. It wasn’t for lack of trying,” she said. “It could be incredibly demoralizing, and there were some days that it was.”
Something that kept her going was Veggies For All.
“It fostered a really positive conversation about hunger,” she said. “You feel a little more empowered if you’re thinning carrots or digging potatoes. My hope for Veggies For All is that it will continue to be what is needed for our community in the next moment.”