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County groups eye community kitchen

VERONICA CIAMBRA IS the director of the Addison Allies Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the Addison County’s migrant community. The network has teamed up with other local organizations for its latest project — a community, commercial kitchen located in Addison County. 
Independent photo/Marin Howell

MIDDLEBURY — A handful of Addison County organizations are working to develop a community, commercial kitchen and tortilla factory that would serve as a space for residents to grow their food-related businesses, whip up value-added products or gather with one another over a meal. 

The Addison Allies Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the county’s migrant community, has teamed up with the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN), Middlebury College and the cooks of local culinary collective Viva El Sabor on the effort. 

Addison Allies Director Veronica Ciambra said the initiative is still in the early planning stages, but the group is working hard to make the space a reality. 

“The shared vision is that it would be truly a community space,” Ciambra said. “People come together over food really easily it seems, so it’s just a place that would bring the community together.”

Generally, community kitchens are licensed, commercial kitchens where foods intended for sale can be safely made in compliance with laws and regulations. Food entrepreneurs and other individuals can rent space at these shared-use, commercial kitchens to work on various food-related ventures. 

Work to develop a community kitchen in Addison County took off this winter. Ciambra said the network thought such a space would help support and expand the work of Viva El Sabor, a women-led culinary collective based in Addison County.  

“We try to support (Viva El Sabor) in any way we can, and that’s how the idea came about. In order to expand their business, they need more commercial kitchen space,” she explained. “Right now, they’re mainly just using their home kitchens. This would be something they could use on a more regular basis, but also something that other community members could use as well.” 

Viva El Sabor was formed in 2021 with support from the Addison Allies Network and Little Village Enterprises, a nonprofit organization created by Vermont Coffee Company founder Paul Ralston. Members of Viva El Sabor, many of whom are from Central America and Mexico, had previously made and sold their authentic dishes within a network of other migrant community members. 

The collective made its debut to the county in June of 2021, with a fiesta on Middlebury’s Marble Works green. Ciambra said around 2,000 community members attended the event, which has prompted a plethora of catering requests for Viva El Sabor’s cuisine throughout the state ever since. Viva El Sabor operates as several individual businesses, rather than as one entity.

“(The collective) started cooking, and that has been very popular,” Ciambra said. “The women started cooking at a lot of different events, not only in Addison County, but also in Burlington and Montpelier.”  

A longtime hope for collective members has been to become full-fledged businesses with the ability to make and package food for distribution at local stores. Ciambra said a community kitchen would provide Viva El Sabor a space to grow its businesses in that direction. 

With a tortilla factory and potential for retail space, the community kitchen could also provide a place for the creation and distribution of other Mexican and Central American food products that are hard to come by in Addison County. 

“It was a long-time idea of mine that it would be nice to have a tortilleria in Middlebury because it’s the basis of Mexican cuisine, tortilla and masa,” Ciambra said. “It could be a place where there’s access to products that are used in Mexican and Central American cooking. We’ve talked about a lot of things.” 

Though the community kitchen was inspired by Viva El Sabor, the hope is that it would be used by and benefit residents throughout Addison County. Ciambra said the community members she’s talked to have expressed interest in having access to such a space. 

“We surveyed the migrant community and ACORN members and found a lot of support for the idea,” she said. “One person said he may use it for beekeeping classes, another person said they’d use it to make crackers.” 

A TEAM EFFORT

Work on developing a community kitchen has been a collaborative effort, with representatives from ACORN, Addison Allies, Viva El Sabor and Middlebury College meeting frequently throughout the winter to create a business plan for the space. 

The group has received funding from the Vermont Community Health Partnership Grant through Porter Medical Center, the New England Grassroots Environment Fund and the Vermont Foodbank to cover costs of developing a business plan and pay consultants to help with the technical aspects of the plan. 

The team is now working with the Vermont Small Business Development Center as they finetune the details of the business plan, as well as consulting with the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, which operates three shared-use, commercial kitchens available for rent to businesses and farms throughout the Caledonia County area. 

Ciambra said a wide variety of funding sources for further developing the community kitchen are being researched and discussed. Once operational, the community kitchen could potentially operate as a for-profit entity with revenue coming from space rental, tortilla sales and other revenue streams the group is exploring. 

Another current focus of the group is collecting information about community interest and determining what sorts of things the kitchen space could be used for. Ciambra said there’s been a demonstrated interest from growers affiliated with ACORN in being able to use the space to make value-added products. 

Middlebury College students involved in the college’s Center for Community Engagement as well as Professor Molly Anderson’s course on Food Power & Justice will be surveying the community to see how Addison County residents might like to use a commercial kitchen space. Students will also research how other Vermont communities have structured and operated shared-use kitchens. 

Ciambra said this information will help inform the process of creating the space. 

“Just figuring out what is needed: how many stoves, how many sinks and what we would have to do to get all of that in place,” she explained.  

The hope is to have the kitchen located in Middlebury. The group has been exploring potential sites but has not yet secured anything. Ciambra said the ideal location would provide space for fellowship in addition to cooking.  

“We have from the beginning talked about there being some community meeting space, so that people could come together,” she said. 

COME TOGETHER

The potential for community members to gather is a central part of the vision for the kitchen. Ciambra said the space will hopefully help combat the isolation members of the migrant community might experience. 

“Socially, people in the migrant community are pretty isolated,” she said. “I had always thought that it would be a place where people from the migrant community would feel comfortable being.” 

She hopes the space goes a step further as well, by helping boost visibility of the migrant community in Addison County and encouraging Addison County residents to get to know their migrant neighbors. 

“My vision has always been that it would be a catalyst for more integration of the communities, and just more recognition of the farm workers because they are here,” Ciambra said. “The hope is that we would acknowledge that we have a lot of people from Mexico and Central America who live in Addison County and giving some recognition to them.”

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