March 18, 2012

Buying club offers local food online

GARDINER -- Supporting local farmers and eating fresh, locally grown organic food are priorities for Veronique Vendette.

click image to enlarge

Dr. Harold Gram, left, and Sarah Miller, director of the Kennebec Local Food Initiative, weigh bags of greens as they split up large containers that came from farmers into orders for customers on market pickup day last week.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Dr. Harold Gram weighs carrots as he and other volunteers split up produce from large bags that came from farmers into smaller orders for customers on market pickup day last week.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Vendette, of Gardiner, is a member of an online buying club for locally grown food, the first big project of a grassroots organization that hopes to open a permanent storefront "food hub" downtown.

"What is more convenient than eating delicious fresh local Maine and organic carrots at a good price?" Vendette said. "There are definitely financial incentives to be part of a buying club because together, we can buy bigger quantities of the items we love, but at a lower price."

Sarah Miller, director of the Kennebec Local Food Initiative, said the nonprofit group wants to open a market downtown where people can buy locally produced foods free of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and artificial ingredients and colors. It also would be a place where people can take cooking and canning classes and learn about nutrition.

Meantime, the group has developed several programs, including the buying club, which is supported through funding from MaineGeneral Health.

Miller said the buying club allows shoppers to purchase a variety of farm-fresh foods from Maine farmers and producers including carrots, beets, winter greens, beef, lamb, pork, shrimp, eggs, flour, oats, blueberries and more.

Customers set up an account through the group and place orders online at on a biweekly basis. Pickups are at central locations in Gardiner, she said.

"Our long-term goal remains opening a permanent storefront in downtown Gardiner that houses a retail natural, local food store; a cafe; and an educational kitchen," Miller said Tuesday. "The buying club is an interim step, and also more immediately fulfills the objective of connecting consumers with a convenient source of local food while supporting local growers and producers."

The group also started Cooking Matters class with the help of Healthy Communities of the Capital Area, Caring Community Gardens, Good Shepherd Food Bank and the cooperative extension. A teen Cooking Matters class just finished up at the Gardiner Boys & Girls Club. And a six-week adult class is halfway through at Faith Christian Church in Gardiner.

Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, said the buying club is a unique, convenient opportunity.

"I am proud of the work KLFI is doing, and think that the buying club is the logical next step in their progression as a sustainable organization to grow into their mission," Wright said.

He said Main Street hopes to increase the downtown status as a local foods destination. It's a 10-minute walk from Oaklands Farm, where cows are raised, to A-1 Diner downtown, where the Oaklands Farm Burger is served.

"I don't know of any other place where this is possible," Wright said.

Miller said there are about 74 farms and 20 specialty food producers within a 25-mile radius of Gardiner, a city that has 51,000 people living within a 12-mile radius.

Mechele Cooper -- 621-5663

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