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Middlebury College students launch unique non-profit to alleviate county hunger

MIDDLEBURY — A new nonprofit venture launched by six Middlebury College students is aiming to tackle hunger and food scarcity in Addison County.
“We’re targeting people who aren’t necessarily shopping at Shaw’s and not necessarily buying healthy food,” said Harry Zieve Cohen, a native of Brooklyn. “It can be really hard to get the opportunity to buy healthy produce … It’s really hard and really expensive. It’s a tough economy and Vermont has a high cost of living compared to other states.”
Middlebury Foods, which boasts “supermarket quality foods at fast food prices,” plans to purchase fresh produce and frozen meat from wholesalers and sell it directly to customers, cutting out the supermarket middleman — a move that the company’s founders, all rising juniors at the college, say will allow them to charge customers just $1.50 per meal for a family of four, a price point that makes McDonalds the more expensive option.
“There is a lot of food scarcity, particularly among children,” Zieve Cohen said. “We’re giving people the opportunity to change their habits.”
The students say the price is low because the company will rely on an all-volunteer workforce, will not spend money on overhead, and will purchase in bulk. It also plans to be self-sustaining; if it sells 350 boxes per month, the business will pay for itself, according to their estimates.
Middlebury Foods will purchase its produce from Black River Produce in Williston, and is in negotiations with a distributor for frozen meat.
“They have been very generous with us,” said Zieve Cohen of Black River Produce. “It’s part of a trend in Vermont. I’ve been amazed by how generous people are.”
The fledgling company has borrowed a distribution system most often associated with local farms and community-supported agriculture shares. Middlebury Foods will package its wholesale food into boxes, each of which will contain a week’s worth of food for a family of four, complete with nutrition information and fast, easy recipes for meals.
“One of the most important things about our model is that how-to guide,” said Elias Gilman, a native of Berkeley, Calif. “It’s a guide from start to finish, from when you have that box on your countertop to when the food is hot on the plate in front of your family.”
Nutrition information, cooking tips and preparation basics are included in the guide, which Gilman believes will take away some of the intimidation of preparing food at home instead of purchasing fast food — a process that he says is challenging for most Americans.
“If you gave me 35 bucks and said, ‘Go into the supermarket and make seven dinners for a family of four that’s nutritious and balanced,’ I know I would have a very hard time,” Gilman said.
Middlebury Foods’ business model uses nonprofits, churches, and other civic organizations as both distribution hubs and community liaisons, providing both a pick-up location and a way to share information about the service to its members and visitors. So far, Charter House and HOPE have signed on.
There is also an extra incentive: Participating organizations receive five percent of the sales from that location.
“So people do well for themselves and well by their community organizations,” said co-founder Chris Kennedy of Chicago.
Middlebury Foods is modeled from Top Box Foods, an organization run by Kennedy’s parents in Chicago. Though Middlebury Foods is clearly inspired by the Top Box model, the students say that it differs in some ways — specifically, they say they have altered the model to fit the location, as the demographics and population density of Addison County differ greatly from that of inner city Chicago.
“What makes this project really exciting is that this model has proven successful in Chicago urban areas, but this will be the first time that this model is used in a rural setting,” Gilman said. “It’s a whole new set of challenges, a whole new way to approach the issue.”
The company hopes to incorporate as a nonprofit in the coming weeks and begin distributing boxes by the end of July. Their first drop-off sites will be at HOPE and Charter House. 3SquaresVT cards will be accepted.
If it is initially successful, students say they hope to continue to grow their organization into other parts of the state, perhaps also beginning to source locally if they can find a way to keep the price point affordable.
And their experience collaborating with the Addison County community so far?
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Zieve Cohen said.

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