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Bennington Regenerative Food and Agriculture Initiative: A Place-Based Complex Systems Approach to Food Sovereignty

A regenerative food network to revitalize the economic, social, and ecologic health of urban and rural areas within 100km of Bennington, VT.

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large company (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Ambata Capital, LLC The Studio Hill Center for Land Regeneration - A Savory Institute Holistic Management Influencer Hub

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.bennington.edu/capa

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Bennington, Vermont

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Region within 100 km radius of Bennington, Vermont, which includes rural and urban portions of Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College is located in Bennington, a small rural town in southern Vermont in the Green Mountains, an area of great year-round natural beauty. Residents have a powerful connection to nature and the land. They value the area’s natural resources, which they are determined to maintain for future generations.

The beauty of the area is overshadowed, however, by the very real issue of food insecurity: the Town of Bennington is considered a food desert. As CAPA and community institutions have begun to study the underlying causes of food insecurity, it has become evident that there are larger food systems issues at play.

As part of its commitment to the Town of Bennington and surrounding communities, the College has become increasingly involved in economic and community development projects. CAPA has facilitated this engagement, particularly through its spearheading of a community-wide effort to address PFOA contamination of the local water supply. As well, the campus includes a small working farm, which is being engaged more fully as we seek to address food insecurity in the region.

There is great potential to connect diverse populations within a 100 km radius of Bennington through a place-based approach to food sovereignty. There are many food networks throughout Vermont developed by the “Vermont Farm to Plate Network.”  Likewise, New York and Massachusetts have increasingly robust local food networks. 

We believe this rural, post-industrial region has the potential to function as a hub for connecting other food networks throughout the Northeast. Three main things are necessary: 1) Economic Development through a regional system matching local producers with large urban markets; 2) Transportation for food distribution using renewable energy and electric vehicles; and 3) Education, providing the most progressive curriculum and training in regenerative food and agriculture.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Bennington’s year-round seasonal activities are centered around nature and the land: snowsports and deer hunting in winter, hiking and recreation on water in spring and summer, and autumn traditions of leaf peeping and harvest festivals.

Like other rural post-industrial communities, Bennington faces the challenge of an aging population, as young people leave in search of greater economic opportunities. The area has significant poverty, with 89% of local public school students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch and 25% of the town’s population using the local food distribution center.

The region also attracts artists and craftspeople, as well as urbanites seeking a slower pace of life. The majority of the population is white, but movement patterns and the College’s strong international student community are increasing diversity. The local hospital and Bennington College are two of the region’s main employers.

There is a class divide, which is especially evident in regard to food practices. Local small farms are mainly accessed by the more affluent members of the community, while lower-income residents access their food at discount stores, Walmart, and fast food restaurants. The easy availability of cheap, processed calories contributes to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and hypertension.

Dairy farming is a big part of the regional identity, but has been in a steep decline in recent years. Dominant farm products also include diversified vegetables, apples and apple products, meat, herbs, hemp, and maple syrup. A new generation of small farmers is reviving agriculture with a focus on organic and regenerative farming. There are over 5,000 farms within 100 kilometers of Bennington.  

The area is in USDA hardiness zones 5a & 5b. The long winter and short growing season dictate much of the area’s agriculture. Climate change is causing increased rainfall and has the potential to lengthen the growing season over time.

This is a water-rich area with a healthy watershed, partially due to the protected status of the Green Mountain National Forest to the east and upland. However, the area’s wells were contaminated with toxic levels of PFOA due to industrial pollution, which CAPA was instrumental in addressing.

Bennington College is committed to supporting the economic and cultural vitality of the community, and is involved in a revitalization effort in downtown Bennington. We believe in the power of drawing upon residents’ deep knowledge of place, as we make connections between education, training, and food security.

Area residents hope for food security, clean water, a healthy environment, and renewable energy. They seek economic stability and prosperity, including the development of small businesses and small farms that will attract and retain young people; and a direct voice in local governance.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

100

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

1000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The current environmental, economic, health, agricultural, educational, and public policy challenges faced by our food system are interconnected with the region’s future challenges, hence the need for a comprehensive vision that brings these key contributing factors together.

Climate change is the overriding environmental challenge that impacts all aspects of the future health and vitality of our region. The changes brought about by extreme weather events, including floods and droughts, have led to a loss of biodiversity and a loss of pollinator habitats. Polluted soils and ground water have led to a collapse of soil ecosystems, dead zones in lakes, and widespread health impacts from PFOA contamination. High amounts of waste generation contribute to unsustainable use of landfills. There is a high need for regional mitigation and adaptation, as the region has not implemented best practices for climate, biodiversity, water, or seed saving. 

The region suffers from a number of economic challenges that impact the future of food security. The high cost of land and equipment, along with the fact that larger institutions primarily purchase food through national markets that undercut local food prices, makes it very difficult for small farmers to be successful. This means that money leaves the local food system, instead of circulating in the community. As manufacturers have left the region, so have young people. Tourism is a major economic driver, yet the winter tourism industry is struggling due to less reliable snowfalls. Recently, several small colleges in the Northeast have closed, further straining the regional economy.

The Bennington area is a food desert. Fifteen percent of Bennington County residents use WIC and/or SNAP. Public transportation is extremely limited or non-existent, negatively impacting people’s ability to shop for healthy, locally produced food. The lack of easy access to nutritionally appropriate food has contributed to a high rate of diet-related disease, including obesity, diabetes, and cancer. There is minimal support for the elderly and the disabled, leaving many suffering from food insecurity. A regenerative infrastructure will address food insecurity by opening access to greater options for healthy food.

There is currently no infrastructure for technical education and job training in the technologies of climate adaptive and mitigative farming strategies, including permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and agroforestry. Nutritional education for both adults and children is also lacking, as are community cooking spaces.

From a public policy standpoint, a comprehensive plan for regenerative food and agriculture needs to be developed for the region. Vermont’s Farm to Plate legislation promotes local food production, but the state has neither the funding nor the infrastructure to allow this to function on a regional scale. While Vermont has passed a Universal Composting Law (Act 148), no clear plan exists for regional compliance.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Based on the environmental, economic, health, agricultural, educational, and public policy challenges outlined above, we believe that a complex systems approach utilizing a place-based, regional framework is the only practical, inclusive, and democratic process that can provide us with the knowledge and resources needed to feed ourselves in the future. Why? By gathering data and evidence about regional ecologies (land, soil, water, climate) and through education from experts, citizens can gain greater control over their own growing season, food distribution systems, retailers, and exchanges.

In response to climate change, a regenerative food and agricultural system is essential in restoring soils with the ability to produce healthy food for the region. Regenerative soil practices sequester carbon and directly participate in restoring the balance of the atmosphere. We aim to give citizens greater autonomy over their food systems, the ability to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change in their own communities, the knowledge of how to regenerate and sustain soil to grow food, and the knowledge of how to protect their water sources.

Our vision will develop an economic model that builds the social and cultural fabric of local communities while drawing on the strengths of the region to support equitable access to healthy food. By developing a decentralized regenerative food hub, our vision will put control of the local food economy into local hands. To strengthen rural markets, we will identify urban markets where the demand supports increased production from regional producers. Creating an infrastructure for food distribution with electric vehicles utilizing renewable energy production will further contribute to economic development in the region.

Key to addressing these challenges is the need for farmers to transition their agricultural practices to a regenerative model. It is critical to provide economic incentives for farmers to transition to regenerative management, and incentives for regenerative farmers to move to the area. These would include access to new markets, namely the urban centers of Boston, Albany, and New York, and access to infrastructure, including renewable energy and electric vehicles. Farmers will need funding and education to transition to these regenerative practices.

CAPA at Bennington College, along with regional partners, plans to provide a progressive curriculum and trainings in regenerative food and agriculture. We will add faculty and local farmers certified in regenerative management to the CAPA staff. This will provide the region with the knowledge necessary to make this transition.

In order to address the lack of funding for implementation of Vermont Farm to Plate and other legislation, we will bring public and private partners together to implement a regenerative agriculture infrastructure.

All of these practices are necessary to provide healthy, functioning food systems for any location in the world.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The world has been focused on driving productivity to meet the increasing food security needs of a growing population, but environmental stress is increasing globally, the security of future supply is in question, and the food produced is contributing to a global health crisis.

To address all these issues, the food system needs to be redesigned around better principles that support not only economic viability but also environmental and social wellbeing. In addition, to properly design the food system, you must address a large enough region and look across multiple sectors including agriculture, energy, and transportation. 

We believe that we can work towards a regenerative food system by building upon the ideas of sustainable systems. We define a regenerative food system as one that integrates into and supports the local community and will utilize 100% Regenerative Agriculture, 100% Renewable Power, and 100% Electric Transportation by 2050.  

Working in partnership with Ambata Capital and The Studio Hill Center for Land Regeneration, CAPA at Bennington College aims to become a hub for regenerative agriculture for the region. CAPA will convene a group of growers, producers, distributors, educators, investors, retailers, community agencies, and activists to create sustainable access to healthy, locally-produced food for all citizens.

By integrating and supporting the local food system, CAPA and its partners will provide a critical supply chain link for rural communities; develop human capital through capacity building encouraging skilled people, including young people, to remain in rural areas; increase access to local foods in underserved communities and schools all while providing farmers with fair prices; and create new marketing opportunities for the region.

Utilizing regenerative agriculture, renewable energy, and electric transportation we will build the region’s economic, social, and environmental resilience and sustainability.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision for the Bennington Regenerative Food Center (BRFC) takes a place-based, complex systems approach to designing a comprehensive plan for the region that builds upon CAPA’s considerable expertise in creating actionable solutions to the urgent social, political, and environmental problems of our time through engaged scholarship, community partnerships, complex systems analysis, and conflict resolution. CAPA is currently leading a multi-year initiative in partnership with local anchor institutions and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to identify and address the root causes of food insecurity in Bennington County.    

In partnership with Ambata Capital and Studio Hill Center, CAPA will build the BRFC, connecting to a broader network of food centers through a Northeast regional regenerative food system. Ambata is a group of focused professionals with expertise in banking, investments, project finance, strategy, operations, and philanthropy. Ambata seeks new and creative ways to finance solutions to the world's most pressing problems. Studio Hill is a regenerative farm in southern Vermont that seeks to strengthen the land's natural water, carbon, and nutrient cycles in order to restore the abundant ecosystem of its 5th-generation family farm.

Our vision for a sustainable framework for the region’s food system addresses each of the key areas of challenge for our region:

Environment: Bennington College will launch a Regenerative Agriculture program focused on holistic management, organic agriculture, permaculture, and other ecologically sound production techniques promoting carbon sequestration and soil building. Climate-adapted farming practices will be promoted through ongoing evidence-based and peer-to-peer learning facilitated by educational institutions and nonprofits. Education will extend into the community with the development of regional best practices, through courses and trainings and peer-to-peer farmer discussions on animal welfare and restoration of healthy soils.

The BRFC, led by Studio Hill Center, will reach agreements with farmers regarding best practices for climate, biodiversity, and water. The BRFC will work with farmers on holistic management to create a regenerative production system specific to each farm and its resources.

A program of economic incentives will benefit small farmers, including: Farm Incubation, where farmers can lease land at a reasonable price that includes educational and business supports as well as shared equipment; Regional Land Lease Program will connect aspiring farmers to unused farmland; and Land Succession, Land Link, and Reparations Programs that gift and sell land below market value with agricultural and indigenous use easements.

The development of a robust electrified transportation network powered by renewable energy sources will facilitate regional food delivery, moving food from rural farms throughout the region and to other networked food centers, and ultimately to nearby urban areas. This network can spur the development and expansion of electrified public transportation infrastructure and also be utilized for personal electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Strengthening public transit options, particularly for low-income residents who are food insecure with limited access to stores that sell fresh produce, is key to the success of this vision.

Diets: According to the Rodale Institute, while higher in calories, today’s food is less nutritious than it was in previous generations due to conventional farming practices and widespread pesticide use. This has led to an increase in preventable diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes that has created an unsustainable burden on the U.S. healthcare system. 

We see numerous opportunities to improve the diets of area residents, including: prescription food programs at local hospitals; institutional commitments from large employers to purchase through local food aggregators; nutritional education programs connected to seasonal availability of local food; a commitment from all local farmers to donate, or sell below market value, 5% of what they produce to food security nonprofits; a collaboration between the public health department, a small business incubator, and a food aggregator to ensure food safety; and a collaboration between the public health department and WIC in facilitating local food education and access.

Economics: Our vision will strengthen the economy for farmers, food producers, and the broader community. Regenerative agriculture practices reduce input costs, provide the potential for ecosystem services payments, create products with higher sale values, all increasing farmer profitability. In addition, renewable energy provides cost savings, the potential for additional income through land leases or community solar projects, lowers operating costs for farmers, and reduces reliance on imported fossil fuels. We must support farmers through mechanisms that include low-interest loans through community lending, college debt relief, and health insurance, as well as farming cooperatives with shared equipment and greater purchasing power. Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) for farms will make their products highly desirable to large brands searching for verified regenerative food and goods.

The establishment of a food aggregator and processing through the BRFC with B-Corp certification will make it possible for small farmers to access high volume, high margin markets in Boston, Albany, and New York City, creating new revenue streams for the region. Along with our institutional commitments, this will help finance the BRFC in order to facilitate wholesale purchasing.

Farmers markets, farm stands, and other direct-to-consumer outlets will be networked and mapped for ease of use on mobile devices. Permanent indoor farmers markets in small towns in the region will support direct-to-consumer sales. We will work with government agencies to allow SNAP and WIC access at farmers markets, and will work with farmers to implement sliding scale CSAs so that SNAP and WIC recipients can use their weekly funds to pay for a share. 

Our vision also supports the development of small food-related businesses that pay a living wage. An incubator will offer a commercial kitchen for processing, and a front-of-house restaurant for pop-ups, catering, and the development of small businesses that use local ingredients to create unique products. Revolving loan funds will facilitate low-interest community lending that keeps money circulating regionally. 

Culture: We are committed to a vision for the future of our region that creates new opportunities to strengthen the sense of community and that inspires young people in a post-industrial age. 

Building on Bennington College’s educational program, our vision includes educational opportunities for K-12 students, including hands-on garden education and nutritional education and cooking classes using local ingredients and supporting seasonal eating. K-12 school districts will commit to purchasing as much food as possible through the local food aggregator. All excess food produced through educational institutions will be given away to social service organizations.

The BRFC will facilitate the establishment of gardens at affordable housing projects and programs for elders, including Meals on Wheels and food service at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. 

We envision the development of a community kitchen in downtown Bennington where educational institutions, nonprofits, and small business can host cooking classes and community meals. Bennington College students will lead efforts to encourage local markets and restaurants to commit to purchasing food through the local food aggregator. Students will also survey diverse residents to inquire about culturally appropriate foods that are not available locally, and will encourage local markets and grocery stores to carry these foods. 

Technology: New technology can provide a series of tools and platforms that will help enable the transformation of the food system back towards a decentralized network of interconnected farmers, producers, distributors, and consumers.

The BRFC will provide technical education and job training in: creating small sustainable businesses, sustainable farming, and culinary arts with a focus on local food. 

BRFC will also share with and learn from the broader Northeast regenerative food system and leverage that scale to implement appropriate new technologies that allow our community to more effectively compete with the existing food system and also better connect the various regional centers and consumers across the Northeast region.

BRFC will evaluate technologies across the food system including farm practices, electric vehicles, distribution and logistics software, tracking and traceability systems like blockchain, renewable energy and more efficient processing equipment, and better customer experience and purchasing solutions. Through the collective capacity and capabilities of the network, we can better understand, implement, and benefit from technology.

Policy: We will work to influence policy on several levels to protect small farms from regulations meant for large industrial farms; require fresh, local produce in all grocery stores; and insure fair wages, humane working conditions, and worker rights for all regional farmworkers. To ensure that Vermont’s new Universal Composting Law is successful, we will work with municipalities to support on-site residential and community-based composting through garbage pickup. 

VT State Senator Brian Campion, Director of Public Policy Programs at CAPA, is one of the foremost drivers of legislation and public policy on the environment in the state and has introduced a regenerative soils bill to the Vermont legislature. Through Senator Campion, CAPA is directly involved in influencing public policy within the state of Vermont and the region.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
  • Grant opportunity lists: Foundation Center, GrantStation, etc.

Attachments (1)

Ambata Regen Food Systems - Bennington.pdf

Ambata's presentation on regenerative food systems and renewable energy food transportation.

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