College students’ food nonprofit is taking flight
ADDISON COUNTY — The average price of a well-balanced meal in the United States is around $2.70, according to the hunger relief charity Feeding America. In Vermont, the average is closer to $3.14, and in Addison County, the figure rises again, to $3.66.
A nonprofit organization launched last year by a group of Middlebury College students has found a way to cut prices to around $1.50 by distributing food boxes at locations throughout Addison County.
The organization, called Middlebury Foods, does this by relying on volunteer labor and cutting overhead expenses.
“We were inspired by Top Box Foods,” explained Elias Gilman director of local affairs with Middlebury Foods. Like all seven co-founders of the organization, he will be a senior at Middlebury College this fall.
Top Box Foods, a Chicago nonprofit started by the parents of Middlebury Foods co-founder Chris Kennedy, seeks to provide quality foods to people who may not otherwise have access to affordable, nutritious meal options.
“We spent the winter and spring of 2013 adapting the Top Box model to rural Vermont,” said Gilman, a native of Berkeley, Calif.
Since last fall, Middlebury Foods has been distributing family food boxes for $35 apiece at locations throughout Addison County. Each family box contains enough meat and produce to feed a family of four dinner for a week. A meat box and a veggie box, priced at $30 and $25, respectively, are also available.
“Middlebury Foods operates as a normal business with a slight markup,” Nathan Weil, chief administrative officer of Middlebury Foods, explained. “We control costs by cutting out as much overhead as possible. There’s no brick and mortar, there are only three options for boxes, we buy in bulk, and our workforce is all volunteer.”
The fruits and vegetables are sourced from Black River Produce in North Springfield, and the meat comes from NPC Processing in South Burlington. Apples also come from Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall.
Monthly distributions currently take place at four locations in Addison County: HOPE (Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects) at 282 Boardman St. in Middlebury, the Mary Johnson Children’s Center on Water Street in Middlebury, Armory Lane Senior Housing in Vergennes, and at the United Methodist Church in North Ferrisburgh.
“It’s awesome,” said Kimberly Hornung-Marcy, pastor of the United Methodist Church in North Ferrisburgh. “They come to our church once a month, they’re very reliable, you can order online or by phone, and it’s wonderful, healthy food. It’s the same food you’d buy at the supermarket for 40 percent off.”
Middlebury Foods’ founders reached out to community figures like Hornung-Marcy to build up a customer base.
“We use a ‘hub and spoke’ distribution model,” said Weil, who is a native of Geneva, Switzerland. “We’re the hub, and people like Pastor Kim, the kind of individuals people trust, become spokes that get the word out into the community.”
Hornung-Marcy stressed the important service Middlebury Foods provides in the winter months.
“In the winter, lower-income families aren’t eating any fresh vegetables without Middlebury Foods.”
Middlebury Foods includes recipe sheets in all of its food boxes. These recipes are easy to make and require fewer than 30 minutes of prep time. The goal is to help people develop healthy eating habits.
The organization’s clientele runs the gamut, and is not limited to lower-income families.
“There’s no income cutoff; anyone qualifies,” said Gilman. “We accept food stamps. But we also serve middle class families wanting to save on their grocery bill.”
Middlebury Foods was launched in the spring and summer of 2013 with a $3,000 grant from Middlebury College, combined with $12,000 raised privately. As of this spring, the organization has broken even, and sustains itself financially.
In April, the organization was awarded $25,000 as a finalist in the 1st Annual Agricultural Innovation Prize, sponsored by the Howard G. Buffet Foundation and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was one of six entries chosen out of an initial pool of 252 applicants. These additional funds will go toward expansions of the distribution network to Burlington and Rutland.
“We’re in contact with Chabad, the Jewish Meeting Center in Burlington. The Episcopal Diocese of Vermont has also expressed interest in working with us,” said Weil. “We met with Sen. Sanders’ office this month to connect with people in the community.”
Weil and Gilman mentioned that they are also interested in setting up a distribution site at Burlington’s Waterfront Park on Lake Champlain.
“The long-term vision is to have a program that we can create a cookie-cutter of,” Gilman said. “A year from now, our goal is to have 10 programs in the works.”
Middlebury Foods is in touch with a number of other colleges in New England and around the country seeking to set up similar programs.
“It works well with the college model,” Gilman notes. “It’s not a typical part-time job.”
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