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Co-op works to ease local food insecurity

MIDDLEBURY — As part of its broader mission to make healthy food more accessible to people in Addison County, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (MNFC) is running two programs — Food for All and Co-op Basics — that help people in the community struggling to overcome a number of barriers.
Food for All offers a free membership to the Co-op, a 10 percent discount, and free access to food-related classes offered by the Co-op.
Co-op Basics offers discounted prices on grocery staples, and it is offered to all customers.
MNFC started offering the Food for All program in 2012. In the past year it has distributed $35,000 in discounts to its members through Food for All.
However, MNFC Marketing, Education and Membership Manager Karin Mott asserted that this number is too low.
“It’s difficult to get a big part of the population to renew over and over again because a lot of participants are pretty transient in nature … young families are moving around a lot, Vermont is losing its younger population in general,” Mott said.
Additionally, the MNFC is struggling to overcome barriers of perception at the Co-op while advertising its programs.
“I’ve heard from people who are now in our program but … before that they had walked in our doors, panicked and walked out,” she said. “It’s pretty, it doesn’t look like your typical grocery store. There are a lot of wealthy people who shop here, as well as a lot of people from a lot of walks of life. The Co-op is supposed to be for everyone.”
Even families already involved with the program are concerned that the Co-op is not able to reach those who are most in need.
Ashley Laux, a Middlebury resident since June 2011, has been participating in the Food for All program for two years. She and her husband live with their two-year-old daughter, Althea, and are expecting another child this August. While Laux and her family are not an example of extreme food insecurity in Vermont, they do have difficulty affording the most nutritious food and do participate in the federal Women, Infants and Children food subsidy program.
The benefits they receive from Food for All allow them to eat local, organic and nutritious food at a discount.
“We are on a limited food budget and every paycheck I have to decide how I want to spend my food dollars,” Laux said. “The Food for All program allows me to spend more of my food budget at the Co-op than I would be able to without it.
“And I want to be spending money at the Co-op because I appreciate their practices in terms of purchasing and the benefits they provide employees and the community aspect at the Co-op, and what I’m able to buy there,” she added.
However, Laux, whose husband is a chef by training, is comfortable at the Co-op because she understands how to navigate an otherwise unfamiliar layout.
“I feel very comfortable going to the Co-op but if you go there and you’ve never bought bulk items, it’s difficult. I think that education piece is a factor in who chooses to use Food for All and who doesn’t,” she said.
Another Food for All member who has been involved with the program since its start said that she is comfortable shopping for herself and her five-year-old son because she has experience at the Co-op.
“I grew up with my mom shopping at the Co-op and I also worked there on and off for about 15 years,” said the local woman who asked not to be named. “And so I love everything about the Co-op and I’m picky about food and healthy food. It’s really important to me to eat organic food.”
Faye Conte is advocacy and education director at Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide organization focused on ending hunger and food insecurity. She works with MNFC to identify local residents who need help and develop the most accessible program.
“Addison County is one of those counties, like a lot of counties in Vermont, that has a broad spectrum of economic security in its community,” Conte said. “Hunger can be very hidden, either because of our very rural nature, or because Vermonters are very proud and self-sustaining people. Because of this, in some of our more affluent communities, it’s easy to miss the folks who are struggling.”
MNFC also works with local community service organizations such as HOPE (Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects) and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity to establish relationships with local residents and reach out to those in need.
Through posters, literature racks and educational programs, Mott hopes to make the Co-op feel more accessible to families in need.
“Access to food often goes hand-in-hand with staff training, looking at how the co-op is advertised, if the co-op is accessible by public transportation, if signage is clear and welcoming to those who might not be used to shopping at a food coop, what kinds of languages are spoken in the town, looking at the literacy levels of materials,” Conte said. “We’re helping to create a store that is accessible to everybody, which is the original purpose of the cooperative movement.”
Lily Bradburn, local food access coordinator at HOPE and part-time employee at the Co-op deli, is involved in advertising the benefits of the Food for All program. She said she hopes to “break down the idea that quality food is only available to a select few.
“We’re trying to … have a greater influx of information and resources available to clients,” she added.

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