By Jonathan Connor
With the invisible hand of the food system market encouraging buyers to find the cheapest food no matter how far away the food is sourced from, it can be difficult to find restaurants committed to serving local foods. In Vermont, the Vermont Fresh Network serves to ease this burden.
The primary goal of Vermont Fresh Network is to connect local farmers with local chefs. Farmers and chefs who are members of the Vermont Fresh Network meet at many networking events hosted by the Vermont Fresh Network throughout the year.
Meghan Sheradin is the executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network. She works with the board of directors and other staff to plan and put on events, promote the organization, and represent and support the members.
With a background in agriculture and marketing, Sheradin enjoys getting farmers and chefs together. “At the core, I love our members,” Sheradin said. “Our farmers are fantastic, and the chefs. It is not easy to be committed to local foods. I have a lot of respect for both of our member types and I love telling their story and sharing who they are.”
One of the networking events they host is a “speed dating” event where farmers, chefs, food producers, and distributors meet and have conversations with everyone there.
Another popular event is the Farmers’ Dinner Series. In this event, chefs cook up an exclusive one-night-only menu featuring some of their favorite farmers, and the farmers are at the restaurant introducing themselves to customers eating their food.
Besides the events, the Vermont Fresh Network supports their members in other ways. Recently, they developed a handbook to help its members learn how to use social media effectively. They also collaborate with organizations with the shared goal of improving the local food system as part of the Vermont Agriculture and Culinary Tourism Council. Through this council, they contribute to the website www.diginvt.com which helps tourists and locals find out where to go to experience Vermont’s unique food system.
Farmers and chefs join the Vermont Fresh Network so they can meet each other and benefit from those important business connections. The Vermont Fresh Network branding also brings people who are conscious about local food to restaurants serving local products.
Minimum qualifications for both farmers and chefs ensure that the integrity of the Vermont Fresh Network label is backed up by active business relationships. Farmers must agree to sell to at least one Vermont Fresh Network Restaurant on a regular basis. For restaurants/chefs to join, they must buy frequently from four Vermont farmers, purchase a minimum of 15% of their food from Vermont producers, use Vermont products that represent three of the six USDA food groups, and attend at least one networking event per year.
Sheradin reiterates that it’s all about the members.
“We’re not the experts, they’re the experts,” Sheradin said, “and it’s how we leverage who they are and to help inspire other folks to be like that and to change the food system.”
If you’re coming to the UVM Food Systems Summit next week, stop by and meet Meghan Sheradin at the Taste of Vermont reception on Wednesday, June 18 from 5:00-6:00 p.m.
Jonathan Conner graduated in May 2014 from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM. He wrote this piece for an internship during the spring 2014 semester. Photos provided by Vermont Fresh Network and used with permission.