For five years, the non-profit Kearsarge Food Hub has existed with the purpose of helping strengthen connection to local foods in Bradford and the greater Kearsarge region. That takes place through a variety of means — Sweet Beet Market supplies the community with year-round locally-sourced foods; Sweet Beet Kitchen produces baked goods and preserves; while Sweet Beet Farm grows local foods using regenerative practices.
When COVID-19 started, the food hub saw an immediate increase in demand.
“People started paying more attention to local foods,” said Hanna Flanders, director of community engagement and co-founder of the Kearsarge Food Hub. “More people are trusting local food, and want to make sure they know where their food is coming from.
The number of customers shopping at Sweet Beet Market increased, and people said that they wanted to be able to do all their shopping at the market, rather than just picking up local meat and produce. In response, the Kearsarge Food Hub strengthened its regional connections and began selling more pantry items like dried beans.
Some offerings at Sweet Beet Market — including in-person educational opportunities for learners in kindergarten through college — were cancelled because of the pandemic. But overall, business was up. Because of that, the co-founders of the Kearsarge Food Hub felt strongly that they needed to support people who did not have equitable access to local foods.
“When the pandemic hit, it was an obvious next step to really dig into creating and strengthening channels that bring foods from the farms to those outlets,” that support food-insecure individuals and families, said Flanders.
To that end, the Kearsarge Food Hub increased the amount of food it donates to local food pantry programs by 550% compared to previous years. The food hub works with four area food pantries in Bradford and Warner, and distributes food through programs at Kearsarge Regional Middle School and Bradford Elementary School.
To cover the massively-increased costs of food donation, the food hub sought restricted grant funds specifically meant to support programs that address food insecurity. Additional fundraising and increased revenue from shoppers at the market also helped cover the cost.
Despite the increased workload, Flanders said that the co-founders are proud to have pulled-off a five-fold increase in food donations. She points out that more donations not only help local families who have trouble affording their groceries. It also supports local farmers who are compensated for their produce and meats.
“It’s working for the farmers, and working for the food-insecure families as well,” Flanders said.
The Kearsarge Food Hub still has steps to take to make sure that everyone can access fresh local foods. The food hub is working to be able to take EBT and SNAP benefits in the store, which would allow people on federal and state food-support programs to shop there.
“We’re going to continue to focus on food security programs,” Flanders said. “There’s a lot of market research to do in that area, to see how we can access more people who are food insecure.”
Although most people think about local eating during the summer months, the Kearsarge Food Hub is focused on year-round local eating. That can be done by following seasonal eating, switching summer’s tomatoes and zucchini for potatoes, winter squash and beets, all of which store well. To support that, the Kearsarge Food Hub is increasing it’s food storage capacity in order to buy more from local farmers and sell year-round.
“Then, we can encourage them to grow more by securing the marketing with them,” Flanders said.
Overall, she hopes that as more widespread dedication to local food production takes root, the Kearsarge Food Hub will be able to nurture a stronger ecosystem of local food security.
“The fact that people are thinking more about the importance of local food has been kind of a silver lining,” Flanders said. “It’s just the beginning of a deeper collaboration.”
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