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Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op works to ease local food insecurity

MIDDLEBURY — Nearly one in eight Vermont households and one in five Vermont children are food insecure, as of May 2015, according to Hunger Free Vermont. In Addison County, one in five children struggle with food insecurity, says the statewide advocacy and education organization that works to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in Vermont.
“A lot of people don’t think of hunger when they think of Vermont. It’s actually quite an extensive problem that many Vermonters are facing,” said Faye Conte, advocacy and education director at Hunger Free Vermont.
Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op (MNFC) is helping to pioneer Food for All, a program that provides discounts and education to families struggling with food insecurity. The program is also offered at many co-ops throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Since 2012, MNFC has partnered with local community service organizations to offer Food for All a fully funded membership to the Co-op; a 10 percent discount on everything in the store excluding alcohol, cigarettes and newspapers, by law; and free access to Co-op classes where they can learn about nutrition and healthy cooking.
This year, 156 families are participating in the program, according to MNFC Marketing, Education and Membership Manager Karin Mott. She hopes this number will grow in the coming years.
“We still have trouble just getting people in the door and signed up for it,” she said.
An applicant is eligible for Food for All if they are enrolled in a variety of government-administered programs, including SNAP (formerly called Food Stamps), Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Heating Assistance or other entitlement programs, or if they are verified by HOPE (Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects), the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, or other local community service organizations.
MNFC was the first co-op to partner with community organizations to determine an applicant’s eligibility for the program, an innovation that Conte says is “an incredible way to engage the community and to be even more accessible to the community.”
Hunger Free Vermont, based in South Burlington, has been working with MNFC and 11 other co-ops around Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts to encourage and support Food for All and other similar aid programs.
“Food is a place where people get very creative and stretch what they’re able to spend. We have a lot of Vermonters who are food insecure because it’s hard to pay for all the basic needs,” Conte said.
Hunger Free Vermont works with organizations on the ground to ensure that they have the resources and information necessary to be accessible and successful. Additionally, Hunger Free Vermont works with state and federal administrators to guarantee these organizations have the support they need from the state to run smoothly.
“We really believe that if Vermonters are going to end hunger it’s going to be because the hearts and minds of Vermonters are all together and people understand that this is a serious challenge facing our families,” Conte said. “They need to be behind it in understanding its prevalence, what it looks like in Vermont, what the solutions are and reaching policymakers to make the changes that will help end hunger.”
For years, Conte and Hunger Free Vermont have been collaborating with the Neighboring Food Cooperative Association, the Cooperative Fund of New England and local co-ops to help implement and expand the Food for All model as part of a larger Food Co-ops and Healthy Food Access project.
City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington and Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier were the first to launch Food for All programs in Vermont, although Hunger Mountain Co-op calls theirs “Co-op Cares.” Since then, the program has spread throughout the state and become an example for co-ops across the country.
“There are peer groups for the co-ops to work together and share ideas and programs. Co-ops around the country who have similar food aid programs are calling Vermont saying, ‘Your program looks awesome, how can I do this too?’” Conte said.
The Food Co-ops and Healthy Food Access project focuses on developing solutions that will make healthy food and co-op membership more accessible. It encourages co-ops to implement a range of programs, including and extending beyond Food for All.
One of these is the Co-op Basics program, which MNFC implemented last year. Co-op Basics offers essential items at discounted prices for all customers.
“It’s an everyday low price program on products we feel most people would have on their grocery list,” said Mott.
Through Food for All and the Co-op Basics program, the MNFC is working to help make healthy, local food more accessible to the entire community.
To learn more and apply for the Food for All program, go online to middlebury.coop, visit the MNFC at 9 Washington St. in Middlebury or call MNFC at 802-388-7276 to request that one be delivered to you.

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