There’s no arguing that locally grown foods have made a dramatic comeback in recent years on the Vineyard. And while we’ve seen a resurgence in Island farming, farmers themselves are often so busy growing and harvesting their crops that getting fresh fruits and vegetables into the hands of an eager population can be a challenge. Add to that the increased interest in providing fresh local foods to Vineyard schoolchildren and you have the seeds of a challenging new enterprise.
Julie Sierputoski of West Tisbury, 42, is raising a son and a daughter, ages 11 and 15, on the Island with her husband Arthur, a builder. A sailor, former farm hand, and real estate agent, she’s no stranger to fresh foods or adventure. Ms. Sierputoski, along with other Vineyard parents, has worked hard to bring locally grown produce into school kitchens. But, according to Ms. Sierputoski, there was no systematic way to make it happen — until now.
A year ago, she decided to harness her many contacts on Island farms to forge a link between farmer and child. She created a new company, Produce Connection MV, designed to source and distribute fresh produce from farm to customer. And, in addition to bringing foods to school kitchens on the Island, she also serves the needs of restaurants, grocery stores, personal chefs, and individuals.
“I’ve been inspired by other people on the Island who are so enthusiastic about providing fresh, local vegetables to schoolchildren,” Ms. Sierputoski explains. “Farmers have the hardest job. The more we can support them, the more we support sustainable foods on the Island. It’s a basic commonsense feeling.”
Ms. Sierputoski took a sabbatical from real estate to launch her new venture. She cites her experience as a sailor, solving problems on her feet and sourcing products efficiently during forays to land, as a significant help to her present enterprise. She also grew up spending summers on the Island and working as a farm hand at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown.
Characterizing her new business as an intensive labor of love, she works “more than full-time,” dealing with Island farmers and Produce Connection MV customers to identify available produce and get it into the hands of those hungry for healthy, locally grown foods.
While some of the larger farms might have their own delivery trucks, Ms. Sierputoski says she knows of no other businesses like hers. Born out of love for the concept, she is hoping that the company will be able to sustain itself, some day. But, for now, Produce Connection MV is what she calls a “nonprofit venture.” She is currently exploring establishing legal nonprofit status or creating an affiliation between her company and another nonprofit entity on the Island.
Working on her own (but welcoming others interested in getting involved in the cause), Ms. Sierputoski spends long days picking up fresh produce from Island farms including Whippoorwill, Blackwater, Morning Glory, Mermaid, and Beetlebung, as well as The FARM Institute, and delivering it to schools and customers all over the Island.
“All of the farmers I deal with and most of the schools have gotten excited about the idea,” she says. She is grateful to the Island Grown Initiative, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable agriculture, for its support, as well as that of the schools and school kitchen personnel. “So many people have been enthusiastic about Produce Connection MV that it’s hard to name or thank them all,” she adds.
Once the season is over and many businesses close until spring, Ms. Sierputoski will focus most of her efforts on keeping kids munching on healthy, fresh vegetables. Nearly every school on the Island now relies on her services, from Edgartown to West Tisbury, including the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and the M.V. Regional High School.
The biggest challenge she faces: the cost of gas and the wear and tear on her truck. Operating on a shoestring budget is tough, she says. “It’s not about money though. I can take this small amount of time in my life to help local farmers and to make a difference in the way kids eat.”
A self-professed private person, Ms. Sierputoski says she has a difficult time asking for help: “I’m not good at ‘Hey, look at me! Look at me!'” But she is quick to add that if anyone has an older truck they’d like to donate or any interest in her mission, she invites inquiries. She hopes, in the not-so-distant future, to be able to hire on a staff person or two.
What’s exciting to her today is that farmers on the Island are now producing food in larger quantities to keep the schools supplied with fresh vegetables year-round. “After only one year in business,” she says, “I think things are going really well.”
For information on Produce Connection MV, email Julie Sierputoski at firstname.lastname@example.org. A company website is under development.