Strengthening Community Food Systems: An Interview with Mandy Fischer

From by Tomas Vrba
Strengthening Community Food Systems: An Interview with Mandy Fischer

Mandy Fischer is the Development Director at the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont, and has been with the organization since 2006. The Center is a nonprofit organization with the mission to strengthen community food systems through new farm incubation, farm business development, agricultural market development, agricultural land stewardship, food systems research and consulting, and celebration of food and farmers.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak to Mandy about Intervale’s role in the community, their challenges and successes, and how community members can get involved and join Intervale in enhancing farm viability, promoting the sustainable use of agricultural lands, and engaging people in the food system.

Food Tank (FT): As a nonprofit organization, what would you say Intervale's role has been in supporting and strengthening community food systems?

Mandy Fischer (MF): The Intervale Center has been a leader in community food systems development for almost 30 years. We have pioneered programs and enterprises in community-supported agriculture, composting, and farm business incubation and development. We reclaimed 360 acres of land in the heart of Burlington for agriculture, recreation, and conservation, and we continue to push forward ideas to improve our food system.

We believe in the power of good food to change the world. We are working to replace the current industrial food system, which is anonymous and environmentally and socially destructive, with a community food system, which is familiar, human-scaled, and restorative of both human and natural communities. What makes us unique is our systemic, entrepreneurial approach. We are a nonprofit, which allows us the flexibility to do the work we feel is necessary to improve the food system, whether it be gleaning and rescuing organic food for hungry people or planting native trees in our watersheds. We strive to earn at least half of our revenue from the sale of goods and services and develop social enterprises that leverage philanthropy to multiply their impact. For instance, we noticed a few years ago that a lot of plastic tree tubes remained behind at conservation planting projects with no plan to remove them, and we felt compelled to do something about it. So we advocated for their limited use moving forward, backed up by our own scientific research, and we started raising money to remove tubes (most of which weren’t even associated with our own planting projects). If we were only interested in our bottom line, or if philanthropic dollars were not available to us, we wouldn’t have been able to remove tons of plastics from past conservation projects. Being a nonprofit is allowing us to do that, making a real and lasting difference in not just our watershed but the earth’s water cycle, and also allowing us to develop new projects that are timely and important. In this same way, our experience, stability, great reputation, and mix of revenue make it possible for us to take risks, sometimes fail, and always learn and share. This is probably why each year we host dozens of individuals and groups from around the world who come to the Intervale to learn about what we’re doing here!

FT: Have there been any unexpected obstacles or opportunities with using this structure?

MF: We have faced many periods of challenge in our 30-year history. These have included transitions in leadership, financial struggles, and wavering vision. Our most significant challenge has been navigating the overlapping and sometimes contradictory regulatory regimes that govern the land we manage. We have learned to work with the State of Vermont, FEMA, and other regulatory bodies to ensure that agriculture, recreation, and program development can continue to happen in the Intervale responsibly. It is also interesting to manage both social enterprises and programs that rely on philanthropy to operate. Many funders push for nonprofit organizations to find a balance between earned revenue and fundraising, and we continue to strive to achieve that balance. Ultimately, our unified mission and vision for our organization allow us to succeed.

FT: You’ve been with Intervale since 2006. What would you say has been the most exciting growth or change here?

MF: The last several years—since Travis Marcotte became our Executive Director in 2006—have been very exciting and fun. Our success has been due in part to a strategic planning process we undertook in 2010, which clarified our mission, vision, and goals and really gave staff direction. Travis is a great leader. He is financially savvy, full of enthusiasm and ideas, and a genuinely nice man. Under his leadership, we have expanded programs, invested significantly in the Intervale’s buildings and lands, and emerged as a national leader in the food systems movement. We are financially stable, and our programs have a big impact. Each year, we work with over 50 farms throughout Vermont, providing business planning, marketing, and land stewardship support; plant 20,000 trees; sell half a million dollars of local food to community members and institutions like UVM Sodexo; glean and rescue 30,000+ pounds of fresh food to hungry community members; celebrate local food and farming with thousands of community members; and much, much more.

FT: What role do you see community events like your Summervale and Wintervale playing in engaging people in the Vermont food system?

MF: Summervale and Wintervale provide us with a great opportunity to bring people into the Intervale and share this place we love with our community. The Intervale is open to the public, and we want people to use and enjoy it. Our events are a chance to celebrate this great place, and they also highlight Vermont’s finest local food. Sharing a delicious meal with friends, sitting on the grass, and enjoying live local music and beautiful summer weather, kids running wild—this is what it’s all about! Our intention is that by creating joyful, fun, and educational experiences, and by introducing people to the people and places that grow, deliver, prepare, and dispose of our food, we can influence food culture and help people make more sustainable and fairer choices.

FT: What is the best way for people to get involved in Intervale’s work around enhancing farm viability, promoting the sustainable use of agricultural lands, and engaging people in the food system?

MF: The Intervale Center loves volunteers. We partner with City Market to provide member worker hours for co-op members, and we partner with many local businesses, hosting employee volunteer days. Volunteers do everything—from staffing the front desk, to planting trees, to gleaning and distributing fresh produce to hungry people. Another great way to engage in our work is to go to the farmers’ market and buy local food, sign up for a CSA, or cook a meal and share it with your family and friends. You can also take a walk! Come down to the Intervale and enjoy this place, or if you’re not in Burlington, go out and enjoy a walk in nature wherever you are. This is a great way to engage in our work. And I wouldn’t be the Development Director if I didn’t suggest making a donation to support our work. We rely on the financial support of hundreds of like-minded community members who, like us, believe that good food can change the world. When you donate to the Intervale Center and our allies, you’re making the world a better place for all of us who eat.

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