Strengthening Local Food Systems

First milk delivery from Maola Dairy. Pictured from left to right: Andrew Platt, Rappahannock County Food Pantry; Cindi Carter and Tom Baccei, Fauquier Community Food Bank; Matt Coyle, PEC; Sharon Ames, FCFB; Kenny Smith, Cool Lawn Farm. Photo by Marco Sánchez

Early one May morning, a Maola Dairy delivery truck took an unusual turn through the gates and into the parking lot of the Fauquier Community Food Bank. Nearby, Director Sharon Ames’ excitement was palpable as she jumped up and down, hands clapping, smile as wide as the gates swung open that day. Since the coronavirus pandemic, Ames said the food bank has had to turn away families in search of milk more often than they’ve been able to provide it.

Food bank staffer Cyndi Carter shared Ames’ enthusiasm. “Today, I’m excited for the clients. I’m excited to see their faces when we tell them we’re gonna have milk for them. At the end of the day, you know you’ve done something good.” That’s exactly what The Piedmont Environmental Council was trying to do when we hatched a plan to match up unsellable local milk with the people who needed it most.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, school nutrition programs have been shut down for months, leaving local dairy farmers with nowhere to sell their milk and more than 25 percent of northern Piedmont schoolchildren, who relied on school for two and sometimes three healthy meals a day, now needing to be fed at home. And a lot of folks have lost jobs and wages. Not surprisingly, food banks all over the region have experienced big increases in the demand for—and shortages of—fresh produce, meat, meals, and milk.

“Part of PEC’s core mission is protecting working farms, and we’ve been additionally focused on local food systems for the past 15 years. We saw an opportunity that PEC was uniquely able to take on—raise philanthropic support to buy milk from local farmers and donate it to our local food pantries,” said Matt Coyle, PEC’s Buy Fresh Buy Local coordinator.

Most family farms in Fauquier County and the surrounding region send their milk to be processed by the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association and distributed under the Co-op’s Maola brand. PEC’s long-time conservation partner, Ken Smith, a fourth-generation dairy farmer at Cool Lawn Farm in Remington, asked the cooperative to adjust some of its processing, delivery and staffing operations to make the shift from schools to food pantries. Meanwhile, our conversations with the Fauquier Community Food Bank and with Rappahannock Food Pantry suggested the need was about 250 gallons of milk a week. We set a $10,000 goal for roughly 250 gallons of milk for about 10 weeks.

PATH Foundation enthusiastically provided a $5,000 challenge grant to inspire support among other potential donors. “Before we knew it, we’d surpassed our goal of $10,000. And on Thursday, May 21, Maola delivered the first 140 gallons to Fauquier Community Food Bank and 60 gallons to Rappahanock Food Pantry,” Coyle said.

Media coverage about the initiative generated a new wave of philanthropic support, from the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation and others, totaling more than $45,000 (update: now over $50,000). Now, we’re providing more than 800 gallons (update: now more than 1,000) gallons of milk per week to 14 (update: now more than 18) additional food pantries. They are: FISH and Community Touch food pantries in Fauquier County; Seven Loaves, Tree of Life, Loudoun Hunger Relief, and Dulles South food pantries in Loudoun County; Christ Church Cares Pantry in Clarke County; Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, The Haven, Holy Comforter Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen, and Loaves and Fishes in Charlottesville; Buck Mountain Food Pantry and Covesville Baptist Church Food Pantry in Albemarle County; Madison Emergency Service Association in Madison County; and Blue Ridge Presbyterian Food Bank and Feeding Greene in Greene County.

Small, family-owned dairy farms are already operating on the edge of survival and the Covid-19 crisis has made business even more challenging. Photo by Tracy Lind

“Our hope was that the initial effort would be a successful pilot program that could be expanded or replicated elsewhere, and that’s exactly what is happening. We are thrilled by and grateful for our community’s enthusiastic support of such an important effort when so many farmers and families are suffering,” Coyle said.

But PEC President Chris Miller cautions that the initiative merely treats the symptom of a larger problem. “The coronavirus pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our food supply chain and illustrates the incredible value of strong, sustainable local food systems, not only for times like these, but also after the current crisis passes when consumers want access to more nutritious and more locally-produced food,” he said.

Small, family-owned dairy farms are already operating on the edge of survival due to falling milk prices, as well as competition with milk alternatives and commercial-scale dairy operations. “Absent innovative approaches to the supply-chain issues revealed during the pandemic, many will not make it through this period. At the same time, with so much healthy food grown and produced right here in our own backyards, there is no reason people shouldn’t be able to provide for the nutritional needs of their families with locally-produced food,” Miller said, adding that while our communities are witnessing a dynamic community solution to a systemic problem, we need a more holistic solution in the long run.

“It is not a permanent solution for PEC to be in the middle of local food sourcing on a regular basis, but it’s a testament of our place in the community that we could act swiftly and mobilize this effort in a single week,” Miller said. “We hope this effort to connect local farms to local food supply needs will be a bridge to systemic change.”

Community members interested in supporting this initiative should contact Director of Advancement Nora Seilheimer at or (434) 977-2033 x7008.

Rapid Response Local Food Initiatives During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained a great many elements that make up modern American society, including the nation’s food supply chain. With school nutrition programs shut down, rising unemployment, and food supply shortages at the grocery store, the pandemic has significantly increased the need for fresh, healthy food within every community. In a rapid response, The Piedmont Environmental Council used the strength of our long-standing relationships with local farmers and funders to help with local food relief efforts.

At our Community Farm at Roundabout Meadows, we have accelerated our second year growing schedule to meet the rising need for fresh produce at Loudoun Hunger Relief. We expanded our garden from 1.3 acres to four acres and are working tirelessly in the fields to grow and donate more than 15,000 pounds of produce—even without the hundreds of volunteers we normally depend upon. Thanks to a new greenhouse, we started planting early and are already supplying a variety of greens four months earlier than last year. So far, we’ve donated 2,000 pounds of apples, 125 fresh herb plants, and 1,500 pounds of fresh beets, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, collards, kale, lettuce and swiss chard to 450 Loudoun households.

We are working with Loudoun County to develop the Gilberts Corner Farm Market as a central distribution point for local food. We successfully worked to keep the Gilberts Market open in the midst of Covid-19 shutdowns, so that residents can access local food there. Now, we are partnering with Loudoun Valley Homegrown Market Cooperative to make Gilberts Corner a food pickup location for Loudoun farmers and local consumers.

PEC is taking a lead within the Virginia Buy Fresh Buy Local network, working with partners at Virginia Cooperative Extension, to promote e-commerce options so that farmers can sell products directly to consumers online. In addition to a new online platform, an interactive, searchable map on our revamped website will make it easier for consumers to find local food.

As the need for local food has skyrocketed during the pandemic, PEC has joined with long-time partner 4P Foods and Local Food Hub in support of a Mid-Atlantic Food Resilience and Access Coalition. We have given them direct access to Buy Fresh Buy Local partners, helped mobilize laid-off local government and restaurant industry workers to staff a supply chain that is delivering nutrient-rich food to those who need it across D.C. and in Virginia and Maryland, and supporting the $10M fundraising goal to make all of it possible.

This article was featured in our Summer 2020 member newsletter, The Piedmont View.