Fresh Picks Café Director Leads Mission to Make Healthy Food From Local Farms Easily Accessible to All

Brattleboro, Vermont Food Services Director, John Ayer, Elected President of the Board at Windham Farm and Food, LLC

 

Windham Farm and Food (WFF), nurtured for three years as a non-profit enabling easy access to healthy locally produced food, is forging a new path as an independent, mission-driven LLC. Who better to help lead the local food aggregation and delivery service into its next period of growth than Fresh Picks Café Food Services Director, John Ayer?

The head of food service for Brattleboro Middle School and High School in Vermont, Ayer knows what it takes to get fresh, nutritional food from local farms to schools. For more than a decade, it’s been a focus of Fresh Picks Café and its parent company; New Hampshire-based corporate food services company Café Services.

So in 2009, when asked by WFF co-founder Hans Estrin to purchase local produce from a fledgling food aggregation and delivery network, Ayer jumped at the opportunity.

“Hans Estrin had a great idea,” says Ayer. “Use one truck to pick up locally produced food from different farms and deliver it same day to schools, hospitals and buying clubs around the county. He offered a solution to the challenge of efficiently getting food from farm to consumer—without leaving a big carbon footprint.”

It wasn’t long before Ayer teamed up with Estrin, farmer Paul Harlow and a marketing coordinator to help drive the WFF mission of increasing the availability of local food to institutional buyers via an online ordering platform. The team was particularly committed to making the model work in schools. Today, the WFF online platform works smoothly with school purchasing systems to make ordering and delivery seamless.

Grassroots Mission Grows

The idea for WFF arose in school in 2008, in Estrin’s Agro ecology class at the Putney School, a private Windham County high school. For a class project, students proposed delivering fresh produce from the school farm to the town public elementary school a mile away.

The plan faltered because of logistical constraints. But it inspired Estrin to connect with Harlow, who agreed to use his truck to deliver fresh produce from his farm and a handful of others to a few local schools. Soon, the local hospital (Brattleboro Memorial) and other schools signed on, generating $10,000 in sales for the WFF within its first three months of life.

Since its grassroots beginnings, WFF has averaged a 75% annual growth rate. Relationships between the network and partners including the University of Vermont Extension and non-profit, Post Oil Solutions have spurred that growth, along with a countywide commitment to the farm-to-consumer mission. Today, WFF manages deliveries from over 30 farms to over 40 non-profit institutions in the Windham County region, including Brattleboro and Bellows Falls Public Schools.

Says Estrin, “We have an amazing array of farmers and food producers on board. And there are a lot of organizations in Windham County that want easy and affordable access to locally produced food.”

What’s Good For Health Is Also Good For The Local Economy

The WFF model is a win-win for producers and consumers. By relying on existing infrastructure and farmer-owned delivery trucks, buyers get better, healthier food at a lower cost—while supporting the local economy in an environmentally sustainable way.

A full 85 cents of every dollar of produce sold by the WFF goes straight back to the farmer. WFF is hopeful its “lean and green” farm-direct model will be just as successful beyond Windham County, in areas well endowed with wholesale farmers.

Looking Ahead

Since its first season, WFF has grown by over 400%. By transitioning to an LLC, Ayer and his leadership team aim to increase revenue even more—to the point where the organization can be financially self-sufficient. WFF is also focused on expanding markets for healthy, local food by collaborating with larger, local food distributors who can offer a broader variety of food products.

Estrin says Ayer has the talent and drive to lead the effort. “Ayer is firmly committed to supporting local agriculture and the promotion of healthy eating habits. He’s also a smart manager and has the full support of a company (Café Services) that has been at the forefront of the farm-to-school effort for years.”