Middlebury Foods continues to deliver for local hungry families

ADDISON COUNTY — In January of 2013, five Middlebury College sophomores began to lay the foundation for a small nonprofit known as Middlebury Foods. Originally inspired by a Chicago company called Box Top Foods, Middlebury Foods would work to combat food insecurity in Addison County by selling “supermarket-quality food at fast food prices.”
Using solely volunteer labor, Middlebury Foods since then has provided low-income and middle-class families with monthly deliveries of fresh food at convenient and community-oriented locations across the county.
Now, more than two years later and with a new generation of leaders, the small business continues to deliver tons of food — literally.
Harry Zieve Cohen (pictured at right), one of the founding members of Middlebury Foods who now serves as a board member since graduating from the college this past May, said the theoretical basis for the company lies in the savings acquired from buying food wholesale.
“If you go to a food distributor, you’d be shocked by how little they sell, say, one red pepper for,” he said. “We can buy food for that price from the distributors, and we’re trying to sell it for not much more than we’re buying it.”
Zieve Cohen explained that unlike supermarkets, which have a multitude of expenses and ultimately aim to make a profit, Middlebury Foods can drive down its prices by avoiding typical overhead costs, such as store rent and staff salaries.
“If we don’t worry about any of that, it turns out we can save a lot,” he said.
These savings, Zieve Cohen said, transfer directly to Middlebury Foods customers, and in Vermont, where 13 percent of households are food insecure according to a recent census, these savings can be vital.
Middlebury Foods first began operations in the fall of 2013 after Zieve Cohen and the other co-founders, Oliver Mayers, Nathan Weil, Chris Kennedy and Jack Cookson won a $3,000 grant from MiddChallenge, an ideas competition sponsored by Middlebury College, and raised over $10,000 from MiddSTART, the college’s version of the online crowd-funding website Kickstarter.
“We took the entire summer after sophomore year to meet with people in Vermont and figure out how the food business works here, who the big players are, and who the people we need to know are,” Zieve Cohen said.
Middlebury Foods then began its first full year of operation and, despite many of the founding members travelling abroad in the spring of their junior years, the company managed to survive and expand.
Now, a new cohort of leaders including rising sophomores Charlie Mitchell and Emma Bliska has undertaken the management of the nonprofit.
“I’m just continually grateful for the work those guys did to get it off the ground as well as the generosity with which they’ve passed it on to us,” said Mitchell. “They’ve just shown infinite trust that we would handle it.”
Mitchell has been hard at work this summer, both running everyday operations and preparing for the coming year.
“What I’m really doing right now is trying to personally reestablish all of the relationships that we had with the Addison County community as well as make some new ones. Essentially, this summer I’ve been running around and meeting with everyone I can,” he said.
Mitchell’s work has already proven successful as the nonprofit hopes to expand its geographical reach. Midway through the summer, Middlebury Foods now delivers to Middlebury, Vergennes, North Ferrisburgh and Brandon, and hopes to reach Bridport and Bristol in the coming year. The most recent round of deliveries served 90 families and provided more than 2,000 pounds of food.
Zieve Cohen said that the continued success of Middlebury Foods lies in its responsiveness to its customers.
“If the quality isn’t there or we’re not on time with our deliveries or we’re not responding to customers or the price isn’t good, people will stop buying from us. That puts a lot of power in the hands of our customers,” he said. “We apply a lot of the rigors and efficiencies of a for-profit company to a nonprofit, and I think that’s very different and I think it makes for a better company and a better product for people.”
Much of Middlebury Food’s business plan relies on the help of the Addison County community. Local community leaders, Zieve Cohen said, have been instrumental in organizing and encouraging customers to purchase food from the nonprofit.
“What’s nice about what we’re doing is that it’s kind of a collective effort. By buying our product, our customers are helping our program continue for other people,” said Zieve Cohen. “Everyone’s in it together.”

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