Food as Medicine? A Vermont Foodbank Tries Culturally-Relevant Food

Vermont's largest food bank is responding to the state's growing diversity by offering culturally-relevant food

September 2023
  |  
Ben Wrobel
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When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, tens of thousands of Afghan citizens resettled in US communities with large Middle Eastern immigrant populations, and all the familiar amenities – neighbors who speak Pashto, mosques within walking distance, Halal restaurants and grocery stores.

Others landed in Vermont.

For the Vermont Foodbank – the largest charitable food program in the state – the arrival of 260 new Afghan neighbors was a watershed moment. It was a chance to test a challenge they had made to themselves during the pandemic: How can we provide culturally relevant food to meet the diverse tastes and nutritional needs of the families we serve?

That challenge was an acknowledgment that Vermont, though still the second-Whitest state in the nation, is now more diverse than at any point in the nonprofit’s forty-year history. It has led the Foodbank on a journey (with the support of a timely MacKenzie Scott grant) to sign large procurement contracts with farmers of color for novel products like African eggplant and jicama – and, in 2021, to orchestrate the delivery of 1,200 Halal chickens to Afghan refugees and other long-time Muslim residents, marking the largest-ever Halal poultry slaughter in the history of the state.

The Vermont Foodbank’s story is just one notable example of a larger movement across the United States to offer culturally relevant (or “culturally-responsive”) food. In at least a dozen states, charitable food organizations have launched programs to better meet diverse community members’ needs, whether those take the form of religious preferences like Halal or Kosher meat; dietary needs that are genetically tied to race and ethnicity; or simply comfort food from a far-off homeland.

These programs represent a new way of thinking about the way we provide food to the needy: as a form of healthcare, and as a core comfort for struggling families.

Or as the Vermont Foodbank’s Director of Community Engagement Andrea Solazzo puts it: “How can we provide food that makes people feel nourished – not just physically, but also emotionally?”

A Foodbank’s Journey

On a frigid Burlington day this February, Andrea Solazzo spoke about the Foodbank’s culturally relevant food journey at the winter gathering of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.

Speaking to a room full of farmers in the agricultural off-season, Solazzo shared the broad strokes of her organization’s journey. The Vermont Foodbank is the largest hunger-relief organization in the state, with an annual budget of just under $20 million. They work with a network of more than 300 community partners, like food shelves and after-school programs, to distribute more than 10 million pounds of food each year to neighbors experiencing food insecurity.

Over the past decade, the Foodbank has watched the racial makeup of their state shift dramatically. Census data show that Vermont has seen some of the largest increases in Black and Hispanic residents in recent years, driven in part by refugees from Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world displaced by climate change or political upheaval.

In 2020, the Foodbank received a major windfall: a $9 million grant from MacKenzie Scott. The team had already launched an ambitious diversity, equity and inclusion effort two years earlier. But the new grant allowed them to, in the words of CEO John Sayles, “think with a lens of abundance as opposed to a lens of scarcity”.

One of their first actions after the grant was to launch a survey of 200 refugee families who used their services. They focused initially on arrivals from African countries, including Nepal, Somalia, Burundi and the Congo.

The survey showed some stark data. The respondents were also clear that they were not interested in certain foods from the Foodbank. The list of foods that respondents “did not want” included pork, curly kale and chicken nuggets.

“We found that there were basic barriers that certain populations had to eating and enjoying the food they received,” said Dr. Pablo Bose, a University of Vermont professor who partnered with the Foodbank on the survey. “They didn’t know what to do with frozen chicken nuggets, or they didn’t have a microwave. Some people were lactose intolerant, and not used to eating blocks of cheese. Others had diabetes, and needed basmati rice like they had back home.”

The respondents also specified foods that they would like to see more of – like cassava leaves, bitter melon, and Halal goat meat. More than 80% said they sought out produce that was not available in Vermont, more than 90% said they sought out grains and canned food that were not available in the state. 

These insights helped prepare the staff for the next phase of the Foodbank’s journey: providing a warm welcome to Afghan refugees. After the United States sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Vermont was one of the early states to welcome refugees. Ultimately, more than 250 Afghan citizens resettled in the state.

The Foodbank set out to help provide a warm welcome. Foodbank staff worked with longtime Afghan community members to create curated food boxes to distribute to new residents – boxes full of dry beans and rice, fresh mint, eggplant, green tea. They also launched a “first meal” program, prepping fresh meals using Afghan recipes, then freezing them until a new arrival’s first night in town.

“The hope is that when our new neighbors arrive on that first night, or the first two nights, they have a meal that feels welcoming and familiar for them,” Solazzo said.

Next they turned to a larger project: halal chicken for the 2021 Christmas season and beyond. As the holiday season approached, the Afghan community adjusted to their first, frigid Vermont winter. Solazzo and her team decided to pilot something they had long discussed: a program to slaughter and deliver chickens that meet the Muslim standard. 

There were no halal food suppliers in the area, so the Foodbank found a provider in Maine that could prepare the chickens for delivery, with an Imam on site overseeing the slaughter. For distribution, they coordinated with local organizations like the Janet S. Munt Family Room and the Islamic Society of Vermont.

Ultimately, they provided several pallets of halal-certified chicken, for a total of 800 chickens. Solazzo remembers: “When we opened up the doors for the direct distribution in Burlington, we saw that 500 chickens were gone in an hour.”

Culturally-relevant food was a hot topic at the winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont in February.

For Solazzo, their work is about building wealth in addition to providing culturally-relevant food. The Foodbank works closely with organizations like African Americans Living in Vermont that are focused on building wealth for farmers of color; upending the notion of the white Vermont farmer. 

“One of my main objectives with all of our community work is like how can we redistribute wealth and money to underserved communities?,” she says. “For a farmer who was previously making sales of maybe $200, making a sale of $3,000 in one go provides, and also a lot of validation. Other foodbanks and customers see that she’s had a major client, and was able to deliver on it. Plus, our contract gives her the infrastructure to support her to work with other wholesale accounts.”

At the NOFA conference in Burlington, Solazzo spoke alongside three farmers who represented new procurement partners. One of them was Janine Ndagijimana, a Burundi immigrant, whose Janine Farm has provided the Foodbank with dried African eggplant and other regional ingredients since 2021.

Through a translator, she told the audience how the Foodbank’s procurement contracts had kickstarted her farm’s business. She grew from a small operation two years ago to selling more than 30,000 pounds of eggplant a year, including Arizona and Texas. As far as she can tell, it’s the largest crop of African eggplant in the United States.

“Since I started, I keep on seeing progress,” she said. “Everything’s moving forward.”

A Learning Journey

Three years into the Vermont Foodbank’s cultural learning journey, Solazzo is the first to say that it hasn’t been a walk in the park. That much was clear during the Foodbank’s presentation at the organic farmers’s conference.

Solazzo spoke about successes, but she also spoke about the challenges with the culturally-relevant food work - including the fact that the Foodbank chose to put the halal chicken program on pause for this year.

It was expensive – the Foodbank had to transport the chicken 15 miles for processing; had to pay the Islamic Center to do the blessing, had to pay for translators the whole time. By the end it was over $30/chicken.

“For this work to continue we need to have more collaboration with agriculture support programs around the state,” she says – for instance, funding an extension person to work with farmers who speak the language.

Dr. Bose says that it’s always a learning journey. “You have to make these kinds of attempts because it’s not a one-and-done,” he says. “It’s really part of a bigger process of understanding.

Ultimately, this work will have to continue, because the larger problem is not going away. This spring, as soon as the Covid public health emergency ended, food benefits programs around the country disappeared.

“We have these food banks and food systems that are meant to be temporary – we’re meant to jump into action when there’s a natural disaster or other crisis,” says Dr. Bose. “But for those of us in the field, we see that this is not a temporary issue.”

He’s excited about how states are taking “food as medicine” seriously.  It’s gaining momentum at a moment when food insecurity is near historic highs. At least 60 million people—1 in 5 Americans — turned to food banks, food pantries and other charitable food assistance programs in 2020, a 50% increase from the previous year. Those numbers have dropped somewhat, but they remain buoyed by rising food prices and the food stamp cutbacks in the recent debt ceiling negotiations.

Indeed, the Vermont Foodbank is not alone in its focus on providing culturally-relevant food; in fact, it’s not even the only food assistance program in Vermont that’s taking the approach. Later in the day at the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Conference, a second panel, “Innovative Local Food Access Initiatives” featured two grassroots-led neighborhood food shelves that were taking a listening approach to what kind of food they provide.

Elsewhere in the state, nonprofits like Feeding Chittenden are providing culturally-relevant food to Afghan refugees, and nonprofits like Intervale Center are working with New American farmers to grow culturally relevant crops.

And it’s happening around the country. Supported by guides like Feeding America’s Nutrition in Hunger toolkit, culturally-relevant food programs have launched at food banks in Boise, Salt Lake City and Colorado. On a national scale, the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program is helping refugees become food secure in cities across the United States.

Dr. Bose sees this as part of a major wave. “When I started doing this work, there were six refugee agricultural programs across the US,” he says. “Now there's more than 50.”

Andrea insists that the Foodbank is in this for the long run. This year, they are exploring further participatory models.

Next year, they are launching a participatory grantmaking project in collaboration with the New England Grassroots Environment Fund. The project will involve community members in deciding how to fund food shelves and other community partners working on anti-poverty and food access programs, to the tune of more than $500,000.

They are also building an internal “food security innovation lab” – funded by the MacKenzie Scott grant, with additional support from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy through the process of congressionally directed spending. The lab will test multiple interventions to address the root causes of food security, and will be guided by participant advisory boards – including a guaranteed basic income pilot designed by local Black community leaders.

“It’s just exciting that the food bank is trying to understand what it means to share power and resources with people accessing our services. It's a space where that hasn't happened too much in the past,” she says. “It's meeting people where they are in a meaningful way.”

Ultimately, Andrea says, “a cultural shift has happened” at the food bank, and program staff have continued to take the work forward. One of those program staff is Zach Hebert, who does community engagement work with the food bank. He feels like they are heading in the right direction.

“Even though it feels like a really big puzzle at the moment,” he says, “The more I spend time on this, the more I feel like I don’t think there’s any better fit to our mission than doing this work we’re doing right now.”

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