Vermont Foodbank Project Supports Farmers in Producing African Corn and Halal Chicken | Agriculture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Foodbank Project Supports Farmers in Producing African Corn and Halal Chicken


Published December 6, 2022 at 2:45 p.m.
Updated December 7, 2022 at 10:22 a.m.

Théogène Mahoro and Hyacinthe Mahoro Ayingeneye feeding their chickens - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • Théogène Mahoro and Hyacinthe Mahoro Ayingeneye feeding their chickens

A steady stream of people flowed into the first-floor community room in Burlington's O.N.E. Community Center on the afternoon of November 17. Many women wore headscarves and long, colorful skirts; one had a baby tied snugly on her back. Convivial chatter in several languages filled the air.

Andrea Solazzo, director of community engagement at the Vermont Foodbank, greeted arrivals. "How many in your family?" Solazzo asked each of them, offering one or two cloth shopping bags based on the response.

From several tables, people picked up frozen chickens, fresh vegetables and apples, and brown paper bags with stickers describing their contents: dried African cornmeal grown by Janine Ndagijimana in Colchester and milled by Vermont Bean Crafters in Warren.

Sandwich boards in front of the community center specified that the chicken was halal, slaughtered according to Islamic law. The birds were raised in Colchester by Théogène Mahoro and his wife, Hyacinthe Mahoro Ayingeneye, and processed by Maple Wind Farm in Richmond under the supervision of imam Islam Hassan of the Islamic Society of Vermont.

The goal of the Foodbank-led project was to support Vermont farmers in raising staple foods that are culturally important to specific communities but are not yet produced locally at scale. Over the past year, Solazzo said, the Foodbank has purchased certified halal chicken from Maine to distribute statewide. African corn, traditionally eaten multiple times a day, had only been available imported from overseas or grown in personal garden plots.

Almost 400 Vermont-grown halal chickens and 160 three-pound bags of cornmeal were distributed at the November 17 event. Another 400 chickens went to families in central and southern Vermont, including refugees from Afghanistan. More cornmeal will be distributed in January.

Lal Pradhan, 43, of Burlington was picking up food for his family of six. He's originally from Bhutan and came to Vermont in 2012.

Janine Ndagijimana with her African corn harvest in Colchester - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • Janine Ndagijimana with her African corn harvest in Colchester

Informed by his past work as a Burlington School District multicultural liaison, Pradhan said his community will benefit from the food distribution. "Winter is coming, and for most of the families, it is harder to go out shopping due to lack of transport and money," he said. "Without a doubt, this is very helpful."

The effort, Solazzo later explained, has involved a broad network collaborating on outreach, processing and distribution. A $60,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program grant implemented by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets "gave us the opportunity to explore this as a special project and to partner with small farmers," Solazzo said. She hopes the project has laid the groundwork for future similar efforts.

By phone, Hassan of the Islamic Society of Vermont said he was glad to help: "It is always good to have halal meat available for our community." Friday services draw almost 300 people of diverse backgrounds to the South Burlington mosque, he said, and many would welcome a steady supply of local halal chicken.

"We need that same amount every single week," Hassan said. While the free food was valuable to some, "We're happy to purchase the chicken," he added.

Alisha Laramee was at the distribution event, presiding over a display of different corn grind levels to survey people's preferences. She runs the New Farms for New Americans program for AALV, a Burlington nonprofit that serves refugees and immigrants and is a project collaborator.

Laramee sees great local interest in African corn, which is eaten roasted fresh or cooked into several types of porridge by people who are originally from Africa or Bhutan. She had already started saving seed and seeking a farmer to raise the corn at scale when "one winter day, [Ndagijimana] walked into my office," Laramee said. "I explained my idea, and she said, of course, 'I will grow the corn.'"

During an early October visit to her Colchester farm, Ndagijimana proudly showed off her corn harvest drying in a hoop house. The 40-year-old was born in Rwanda to refugees from Burundi and has lived in Vermont for 15 years. Since 2015, Ndagijimana has built what she said is the largest African eggplant farm in the U.S., producing about 24,000 pounds this year and shipping to as far away as Utah.

Corn is a new opportunity, Ndagijimana explained through an interpreter. "People love it. We eat this flour for all our life," she said.

African corn grown in Colchester - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • African corn grown in Colchester

From her 2,300-pound 2022 harvest, she is saving many pounds to seed next year's crop. "Now, I have a market," Ndagijimana said happily, referring to the Foodbank project, which she hopes will continue for the 2023 growing season in some form.

On that same October day, Mahoro, 47, and Mahoro Ayingeneye, 54, were feeding chickens at the Vermont Land Trust-owned Pine Island Community Farm, where they have lived and farmed since 2013. Originally refugees from Rwanda, the couple raise 5,000 to 6,000 birds annually and have saved enough to buy their own small farm in Williston.

Many individual customers come to Mahoro and Mahoro Ayingeneye's operation to select chickens live and do their own halal slaughter on-site. But for the Foodbank project, Mahoro said, Maple Wind Farm picked up the 800 birds to slaughter in Richmond. That efficiency and the guaranteed income helped the couple offset skyrocketing feed costs, he said.

Picking up food on November 17, Samuel Dingba, 28, of Burlington was excited to learn that people he knew had grown the corn and chicken. Local farmers "care about what they are growing and what people are eating," he said.

"We are people who share the same culture," he added.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Harvests of Home | Vermont Foodbank project supports local farmers in producing African corn and halal chicken"