Helen Labun, UVM G’06, is experienced in everything from managing agriculture programs to freelance food writing to running a Montpelier restaurant. Now the Newbury, Vermont, native is the new executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, an organization that connects Vermont food producers with chefs and culinary professionals across the state to strengthen the local food economy.
Helen Labun, second from right, is the new executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network.
Helen graduated from Princeton University before earning a master’s degree from UVM’s Department of Community Development and Applied Economics. She replaces Meghan Sheradin, UVM G’05, who was recently named the first executive director of the Vermont Grass Farmers’ Association.
Helen has worked for more than a decade on rural economic development issues, managing programs at the Vermont Council on Rural Development and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. In Montpelier, she ran Hel’s Kitchen restaurant and hosted a weekly international dinner series.
We talked to Helen about her passion for local food, the importance of partnerships, and what she has in store for the Vermont Fresh Network (VFN).
The VFN is more than 20 years old and has made great strides in connecting farmers, producers, restaurants, schools, and institutions. What’s your vision for the organization as it enters its third decade?
This is a pretty exciting time for VFN. It’s not just that the organization itself has matured over 20 years—although it has—but a lot has changed in our local food scene. For one thing, as we’ve reached a critical mass of local food-focused organizations, we’re each better able to focus on our particular piece of the food system and trust in our partnerships to help broaden our impact.
A good example of this is the DigInVT partnership, where different membership organizations have come together to work collaboratively on agricultural and culinary tourism. We have a website, DigInVT.com, and within the partnership we complement each other with our different memberships, from brewers to tree fruit growers to chefs. VFN is helping give chefs and culinary professionals—and the farmers who work with them—a place in these broader partnerships.
The other thing that’s changing is the impact of chefs and other culinary professionals in shaping what we eat. Americans spend more on food prepared outside the home than on ingredients for cooking at home, so there’s a direct impact. And there’s also the role chefs play in shaping food trends, the recipes we try at home, and generally our sense of what’s good to eat. We’ll be looking strategically at that impact here in Vermont. I think implicit in that conversation is going to be looking at the diversity of culinary professionals who are shaping our food culture—everything from fine dining on special occasions to prepared meals at the grocery store on a Tuesday night.
What do you see yourself focusing on during your first year as executive director?
I do plan to grow VFN’s membership, and I think two big things need to happen to make that successful. VFN has had a goal to represent a lot of different types of culinary professionals, and we’ve stuck to that, but now we’re at a point where we need to also diversify our programs and benefits to reflect that diversity.
The other thing is the transparency and verification component of what we do. A downside of the popularity of farm-to-table is the temptation to mislead consumers, such as the publicly exposed false advertising happening in other states. It’s a hard thing to guard against. We’re doing the best we can in Vermont, there’s always room for improvement.
Do you have any plans for enhancing or growing DigInVT.com?
We’ve secured a grant from the Working Lands Enterprise Board, with additional support from the Lamoille Economic Development Corporation and NOFA-VT, to do a major tech upgrade this summer. That both puts the site on better technical footing, and lets us make some changes based on what we’ve learned over the last five years of using it.
We do have plans for growing the site, and there are producer groups that have emerged since we first began that we’ll be adding. The cider makers are going up now, and we’re always pushing for better geographical coverage.
Meghan also did a really good job establishing DigInVT.com as more than an agritourism project. It’s non-profit organizations pooling their information in a really unprecedented way and creating an information infrastructure through this database. The information we’re gathering, and the different ways that consumers can interact with it, can be applied to many projects beyond tourism.
When it comes to local food, what do you think sets Vermont apart from other states?
I think the idea of being “set apart” is really important in local food, in the sense that we should feel the potential for a unique experience around every corner. A few years ago, friends and I rode our bikes across West Virginia on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal, and indulged in a three-hour dinner at Lot 12 in Berkeley Springs, a restaurant that’s active in supporting local farmers that serves fried duck wings and ramp hush puppies.
That was a very different experience than driving through on the interstate and stopping to refuel at a Starbucks just off the exit. I remember it, and when I see articles or interviews about West Virginia food I pay attention, and one day I’ll go back to try the famous West Virginia Pepperoni Roll.
So, I can name all sorts of food experiences that set Vermont apart, but the greater idea is that everyone, not just every state but even every town, should have something unique to offer.
Was cooking, food or agriculture part of your childhood in Newbury?
Oh, yeah. So much so that I didn’t even appreciate it because I didn’t know there was anything but a house centered on gardening and cooking. I was in high school before I tasted canned peas from the supermarket. My mother built a greenhouse off of the dining room because she didn’t want to buy a grocery store tomato, even in winter. She’s got figs growing now, as well as lemons, and at one point was working on an olive tree. She has one corner of her kitchen next to the wood stove that’s floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with cookbooks and a reading chair between them. That’s pretty much my life goal to have a kitchen with a cookbook reading corner.
The Vermont Fresh Network will host its 21st Annual Forum at Shelburne Farms on August. 6. Visit www.vermontfresh.net to learn more.