Partner Spotlight: The Vinegar Hill Canning Cooperative

Written by Cile Gorham

3Within the array of educational programming, and farmers market advocacy, Market Central is proud to put the spotlight on another very worthwhile project at City Market:  the Vinegar Hill Canning Cooperative, the brainchild of the Healthy Food Coalition’s Executive Director Joanie Freeman.

Several years ago, Joanie and her partner Dave Redding arrived in town.  Their arrival was very noticeable.  Whether it was at a UVA Food Collaborative event, or at the City Market, wherever sustainable living skills or local food was the subject, one was bound to meet Joanie.  Through Dave’s activities in the gleaning project at City Market, and Joanie’s concerns that lower income citizens have access to healthy food, an idea percolated.   Although gleaning at the market is a noble endeavor to prevent waste and feed those in need, Joanie saw an opportunity to put “scratch and dent” produce to another use.  Market Central donated funding for supplies from the Ball Canning grant, JABA donated kitchen space, and Joanie, armed with her vision, recruited some interested ladies to turn “seconds” produce into canned goods to be sold as added value products to the community at the market.    The Vinegar Hill Canning Co-op was born.

 2The project has merit on multiple levels.  It gives local unemployed or underemployed citizens a chance to learn marketable skills and a place to develop a business; and it is a sustainable business model.   On another level, the canning co-op has opened up a market for previously unsalable produce to benefit farmers.  On a third level, the project expands the farmers market both in vendor and consumer opportunities to an underrepresented segment of the community.

In 2012, early in the market season, Market Central had an opportunity to write a USDA Farmers Market Promotion Project Grant.  The grant allowed funding to go to Sub-grantees.  On the strength of the Vinegar Hill Canning Project outcomes, including job creation, increased vendor sales, and increasing market outreach, the project won funding for its core mission and extra initiatives such as soft-skills training, business training, and promotional activities.

So this year, Vinegar Hill Canning Co-op is putting plans to action.  Denise Arnold, one of the original canners, is now the general manager.  In addition, Denise researches and develops recipe’s at home.      She has two new co-op interns, the grandmother- granddaughter team of Joyce and Taikia Walker, originally from Virginia Beach.  Together, they have attended training sessions in industrial canning at Virginia Food Works in Farmville, where they typically go with very large batches.  They can smaller batches at the JABA kitchen in the new City Center.  The canners have also taken food safety instruction on low acid production with Virginia Tech Serve Safe.

What motivates them to chop fruits or vegetables for house on end and stand all day around vats of boiling water?  Taikia, who goes by1 Kia and also works at the Vinegar Hill Café, wants to help the African-American community by bringing jobs to the area.  She likes cooking, so canning is a natural but new experience for her.  She says support and love is the foundation of the enterprise.  Denise really believes in conservation:  not letting food go to waste, but putting it to a new use by canning.  Her goal is to create sustainable jobs with a steady income and stability.  There are challenges ahead with balancing production, marketing and sales. It is hard to invest in production without the corresponding support in sales.   She would love to see the business grow enough to justify hiring more canners but knows she can’t expect to hire more workers without reasonable pay.

Joyce is a steady force supporting the Vinegar Hill Cannery goals.  She is also the steady presence at the market table.

Their canned products have been made from produce from Virginia Vintage Apples, Cider Works and Horse and Buggy.    New this year is the Vinegar Hill Peach Butter.  As the produce rolls in at the market, and with on-going training, there are plans for pickles and tomato based- products.   The Vinegar Hill canners also have plans to to get involved in canning education.

Vinegar Hill Canning Co-op sets up in the non-profit section of the market on First Street.  Please stroll over to their booth and meet these new entrepreneurs and taste their products.    There is so much more than applesauce or jam in each jar.  There is hard work, dreams, support for local farmers, and the generosity and vision of Joanie Freeman.  With our support, we hope to see the Vinegar Hill Cannery make the switch to the for -profit side of the aisle!

For more information about the Vinegar Hill Canning Cooperative or to learn how to get involved, contact Market Central Chairwoman Cile Gorham at cecile@marketcentralonline.org or at the Market Central table at the Saturday City Market.