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Researching the Viability of Flash-Freezing Technologies for Enhancing Local Foods in the Institutional and Charitable Food Systems

Principal Investigators: Philip Ackerman-Leist, Tara Kelly, Garland Mason
Funding: $100,000 and use of VT Agency of Agriculture’s mobile flash-freeze unit for three growing seasons

Green Mountain College’s (GMC) Farm & Food Project (FFP) faculty and staff have collaborated with numerous educators, organizers, farmers and scientists in the regional and national food movement. For two of its collaborators—The Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) and the Poultney-Mettowee Conservation District—GMC has donated office space and significant faculty and student services. Together with these two organizations and the support of UVM Extension and the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, the College has become a nexus point and key promoter of food and agriculture initiatives in southern Vermont.

In June 2010, FFP was granted use of the state of Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s mobile flash-freeze unit for three growing seasons in order to pilot the flash freezing of products for institutional and food pantry use. FFP is currently using the flash-freeze unit and the College’s resources for research and education, in conjunction with FFP’s new “Community Food Lab,” a commercial kitchen facility dedicated to teaching and research, located immediately adjacent to the parking location for the mobile flash-freeze unit.

With recent funding granted by Jane’s Trust, the College will dramatically expand the goals and use of the Flash-Freeze Project, and, working in close collaboration with its partners, enhance regional efforts in new market research and education by creating a new “Flash-Freeze Specialist” staff position (August 2011-November 2012). This Specialist will enable the project to:

  • Transport the mobile flash-freeze unit to various locations in Rutland County and southern Vermont to process “gleaned” products from farmers’ fields and GrowARow produce collected at farmers markets for donation to food shelves, senior centers and other parts of the charitable food system in southern Vermont.

  • Test various products and package sizes for flash-frozen products for use in schools, hospitals, senior centers, and the charitable food system, as well as market opportunities at regional food coops, farmers markets, general stores, and grocery stores.

  • Determine “price points” for particular products that can be flash frozen and used by different institutions so that foods with high nutritional value can be available to people in all economic strata.

The Specialist will have two major responsibilities. During the 2011 and 2012 growing seasons, this individual will manage the field aspects of the Flash-Freeze Project. This will incorporate the scheduling of the unit, the transportation of it to various locations in Rutland County and southern Vermont, and the training and oversight of gleaning and flash-freezing volunteers. The specialist’s second major responsibility will be to work collaboratively with RAFFL’s New Markets Specialist to expand research in the use and pricing of flash-frozen products and other new market options for farmers interested in selling to institutions and working with the charitable food system, and to work with professors at GMC in the integration of flash-freezing operations and other new market research into educational programs for the agricultural community, including the College’s undergraduate and graduate sustainable agriculture curricula.

The Specialist will be housed in GMC’s Solar Harvest Center, sharing an office with RAFFL’s New Markets Specialist. This location is ideal, given the adjacent offices of GMC faculty and farm staff and convenient access to the commercial kitchen and close proximity of the flash-freeze unit. The ultimate key to success for flash-freeze operations is the determination of price points that create fair prices and dependable markets for farmers and are in alignment with constrained institutional food budgets. This information is of keen interest to farmers, institutions, and the emerging “food hubs” in the state, particularly the proposed Green Mountain Food Hub for the Rutland area. This on the ground research is critical to the success of state and regional food system initiatives, including Vermont’s strategic Farm to Plate Initiative and a newly formed consortium of New England stakeholders working together to create a more resilient and accessible regional food system.

Consumers benefit from flash-frozen local foods because they generally have a higher nutritional value—particularly when products are frozen immediately after harvest—than many foods preserved with high heat. Flash-frozen products not only require minimal processing, but they are also simple to use in high-volume, fast-paced institutional kitchens. Culinary staffs in many institutions prefer to use lightly processed frozen foods in order to minimize the labor costs and staff training needs often associated with fresh local foods. Flash-frozen products also allow culinary staff to utilize local products throughout the course of the year, when fresh produce is unavailable.

Farmers benefit from flash freezing by providing financial return on crops that they cannot readily sell as fresh produce due to slight imperfections in produce or over-production of particular crops. Of particular importance to this region is the fact that flash freezing can help farmers get one step closer to the establishment of mid-scale agricultural production, a critical link to bringing our region closer to its full agricultural capacity. This “loss of the middle” is a nationwide dilemma, and it is manifested in the Northeast by our overall lack of regional fruit and vegetable products on a year-round basis. As Green Mountain College continues to educate the next generation of farmers, it is also committed to the development of an infrastructure essential to support small to medium scale agriculture in Vermont.

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