Tags » Dispatches

 
 
 

In Another County: One Week in America’s Natural Gas Mecca

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

On January 31, eleven Middlebury students—outfitted with cameras and field recorders—piled into a 15-passenger van and motored seven hours south to Bradford County, Pennsylvania, home to one of the most densely hydraulically fractured regions in the United States. Their week-long Middlebury Alternative Break (MAlt) Trip in Eastern Pennsylvania was structured as an opportunity to explore energy issues. It was a leap into the unfamiliar, an attempt to humanize the social, political, and environmental dimensions of natural gas extraction.

Two of the participants chronicled their experience.

The first thing we did when we rolled into Bradford County was scan the scenery for signs of hydraulic fracturing: the “frack” pads, the clear cuts of forest, the cesspools, the bulky rigs and power stations. Instead, we saw a community enduring what seemed to be the consequences of the natural gas industry’s “boom-bust” economy. We observed only vestiges of the gas companies: the occasional water truck, a frack pad, or pickup stained packed with pipeline, stained ink black. Landmen had already collected signatures from landowners’ to drill. Wells had been drilled, fracked, and re-fracked. For the lucky few, royalty checks, big or small, were streaming in. The traffic that accompanied the initial fracking boom had thinned. Local shops, hotels, and restaurants, once teeming with contractors, landscapers, and engineers, were emptied.

frack

One of the authors, Zane Anthony, standing at an abandoned fracking site in Pennsylvania

We wondered where everyone had gone. (To the next fracturing sites outside the Marcellus Shale border, we would learn—to North Dakota or Oklahoma where communities were being zoned and primed for drilling, fracking, and extraction.)

It seemed that everyone we encountered had a story. One resident we met was Carol French, a lifelong dairy farmer and Bradford County resident, who along with fellow dairy farmer Carolyn Knapp, founded Pennsylvania Landowner Group for Awareness and Solutions (PLGAS) in 2008. PLGAS provides a forum for community resistance to unjust business practices by the gas industries in the region.

Carol told us that she had never considered herself an activist type. Then, she leased her land to Chesapeake Oil Corporation. Drilling began on her property, and her water turned to gelatin. She and her livestock developed rashes all over their bodies. Her adult daughter became sick multiple times and ultimately moved out of town. Carol sells her milk to many corporations, but she no longer drinks it herself. She said her community was now fraught with environmental health risks as a result of the industry’s unregulated, unrestrained efforts to extract.

Later in the week, we visited the office of the Bradford County Planning Commission. They told us the fracking industry has funneled wealth into the area and enabled farmers to sustain the economic viability of their livelihoods. We asked them about Carol’s and Carolyn’s claims. They said water contamination as a result of hydrofracking was not a prevalent issue, insisting the industry is safe. PLGAS and the Planning Commission’s stances on natural gas issues were fundamentally divided. We were in a dual reality.

We also encountered middle ground. We met with a man at the county’s conservation agency who considered fracking one of the most effective farmland conservation efforts he had ever witnessed. In the county, many of the farmers are elderly, and a farmer’s retirement is his land. We were told that royalties from the industry have allowed many farmers to remain on their land into retirement. Without this option, the conservation agency’s representative told us, developers would have purchased the land, subdivided it, and built “McMansions.”He also noted that the industry has encouraged people to break their conservation easements with the agency to allow for more fracking and paid for the resulting fines. It is not yet understood how fracking has impacted the land and its resources, he said.

We also interviewed a couple who leased their 200 acres at the height of the boom and today earn substantial income from royalties. With this money, they installed a geothermal heating system on their property. Other families, they noted, leased early on for a fraction of the price of those who waited long enough for higher royalties, which has resulted in a substantial wealth gap previously unseen in the area.

On the last night of our trip, we worried that once we returned to  Middlebury our memories of this place would fade, that we would forget that our lives are so deeply rooted in energy consumption, consumption that affects communities like this one in complex and permanent ways. But this concern didn’t last long. We had traveled to a seemingly foreign  jurisdiction to see first-hand the environmental and societal impact of natural gas extraction; when we left, we were determined that our experience wouldn’t be left behind.

Zane Anthony ’16.5 is a biology major from Annapolis, Maryland. Sophie Vaughan ’17 is an environmental studies major from Oakland, California.

This is the first Dispatch in a three-part series chronically student-led Middlebury Alternative Break Trips.

The Sochi Experience

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

simi_hamiltonFor the second-consecutive Winter Olympics, cross-country skier Simi Hamilton ’09 competed for the United States. We look back on his road to Sochi.

American cross-country skier Simeon “Simi” Hamilton ’09, a three-time NCAA All-American at Middlebury, did something on December 31 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, that no American male had done in more than 30 years. He won a cross-country World Cup race.

In a 1.5km sprint freestyle (skating) race, Hamilton won a frantic fight on the final straightaway with Canada’s Alex Harvey and Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway to take his first-ever leg of the Tour de Ski, part of the cross-country World Cup circuit, and earn his first World Cup podium (top three) finish. The win was also the first by an American male on the World Cup since Bill Koch won the Sarajevo 30km event in February 1983.

With the Sochi Games just a month away, there was suddenly a bit of additional media glare on Hamilton’s Olympic prospects. Hamilton, from Aspen, Colorado, arrived in Sochi being talked about as a contender in the sprint events. And he would not have disagreed with that assessment.

As it happened, the Olympics didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. All the Olympic cross-country races were held at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center, a lovely venue at the top of a long cable-car ride, a couple of thousand vertical feet above the mountain town of Krasnaya Polyana. Most of the early races, in particular, were held in sweltering temperatures, for world-class skiing, in the mid-50s. There was plenty of snow up at Laura, but its consistency was constantly shifting – slush in the sunshine, glare ice in the shadows – and ski techs had a tough time dialing in base preparations and wax choices. In fact, one of the biggest stories in cross-country racing at the Games was the inability of the vaunted Norwegian team to provide its athletes with skis that worked.

So, against this backdrop, in the men’s 1.8km sprint freestyle, Hamilton made it to the quarterfinals, but finished sixth in his heat, with only the top two advancing, leaving him in 27th place overall. He was part of the 4x10km relay team for Team USA that finished 11th. And he teamed with Erik Bjornsen in the men’s team sprint classic event, qualifying for the finals and finishing a respectable sixth overall. Bjornsen, a distance specialist, was pinch-hitting for Hamilton’s usual sprint partner, Andy Newell, who was knocked out by illness.

“I was really hoping for a little more success here,” he said right after the team sprint on February 19, during which he ran six laps of a grueling 1.8km course. “I feel like I’ve had a lot of good international experience over the years, and I’ve been progressing every single season. Last year was kind of a frustrating season with a lot of illness, but this year I feel like I made some really big gains, and I’ve felt fitter than I ever have and my speed is a lot better.

“So, to come here and be 27th in the sprint was definitely a little frustrating. But you know, at the same time, I think one of my strengths is just looking at the big picture, and I think being a good ski racer means that you’re a well-rounded racer, and you can process things, and take them in stride and learn from them. And the more you ski race, the more you realize that not every day is going to be the best day ever.”

While he found his Olympic experience somewhat frustrating, his focus is on the future. “I was looking forward to this day [the team sprint] all week, he said, “and now I’m looking forward to getting some really good training in over the next 10 days before we have a skate sprint in Lahti, Finland, and finishing out the season really well.

“Yeah, it’s a cool experience being here with a great team and a great staff, in a beautiful place, and my family’s here. No matter what the result is, we’re just lucky to be on this team and be here and represent the U.S.”

A People’s History, Documented and Taught

Categories: Midd Blogosphere
Student protesters at Middlebury in 1970.

Student protesters at Middlebury in 1970.

Around 10 p.m. on January 22, the third Wednesday of winter term, Hanna Mahon ’13.5 and Kristina Johansson ’14 finally drew an end to their long day and waved good-bye to each other. In fewer than 12 hours, they’d be seeing each other again.

 But unlike other students around campus, who were following similar winter term routines, Mahon and Johansson’s relationship was different—they were co-teachers for a student-led course called A People’s History of Middlebury College.

Different from the other course offerings during winter term, A People’s History was conceived, created, and instructed entirely by the two students. And while student-led winter term courses date back to 1970— a year when Alan Agle ’70 and Barry Sullivan ’70 offered courses on computer systems and on Rousseau, respectively—they are not annual occurrences because they require a skill set and level of organization that not every student has or wants to employ.

Take that busy Wednesday, for instance. That day, the two instructors had arranged for a pair of guest speakers, Steve Early ’71 and Torie Osborn ’72, to offer an oral history of student protests at Middlebury in the ’60s and ’70s. Right after class, the eight students, their peer instructors, and the guest speakers headed to the Grille for a continued lunch discussion on activism. After a two-hour break, they reconvened at Wonnacott House for dinner with the course’s faculty adviser, Jonathan Miller-Lane, other alumni, and professors. A heated discussion at the dinner table was followed by a panel discussion, titled Middlebury in the 1960s: Student Resistance and Social Change, held in Dana Auditorium.

“This is a complicated, moving-parts course they’ve organized—guest speakers, the archives, this panel,” said Miller-Lane. “They are taking it very seriously and are deeply committed to it. I’ve been really grateful to see that happening, to see the quality of their thinking and the quality of their work.”

And while the schedule that Wednesday wasn’t exactly typical for the class—most days did not require five-plus-hours of attendance—the content of the day was representative of a class that “centered on marginalized voices and on periods of struggle” at Middlebury. It was, in the words of its creators, about the stories of buried or forgotten resistance and struggles of the students, faculty, and staff of the College during the past two centuries of its existence, episodes that contributed to Middlebury as it is today.

Mahon and Johansson started researching protest movements at Middlebury after returning from Occupy Wall Street in New York City in 2012. Mahon says that it was the first time she had thought about her place within a legacy of people who had tried to make changes at Middlebury. In the summer of 2013, she and Johansson applied for funding from the Center for Careers & Internships (CCI), stayed on campus to research and construct a history of struggles and resistance at Middlebury, and created an interactive Web museum with the findings. Soon after their project started, they believed that their endeavor was worthy of further investigation with a larger group of peers.

As an independent scholar with a focus on peace and justice studies and an educational studies minor, Mahon had heard about student-led classes and suggested to Johansson that they design a course. With the guidance of Miller-Lane they did just that, submitting an application in September 2013; two months later, the faculty curriculum committee approved their proposal and A People’s History of Middlebury College, STLD1006, was scheduled for winter term 2014.

According to Miller-Lane, teaching the class as an instructor constituted the praxis part of Mahon’s senior project, where theory and practice come together. “The course enables her to extend herself,” Miller-Lane said. “To take the study she’s done and organize the course around this idea is different from producing a product like a thesis. It requires effort to bring those pieces together.”

“Very often the professors’ courses will be on big-lens, broad-view social movements,” Miller-Lane added. “The course is unique in that it’s very specific to this institution. There are occasionally courses like that, but I don’t think this is filling a gap that is only fillable by student-led courses.”

Although alumni and professors with more experience teaching may instruct the same content as well as, if not better than, Mahon and Johansson, the democratic and dispersed power dynamic in the classroom has been appreciated by enrolled students.

“There is a more relaxed atmosphere in class,” said Kate McCreary ’15. “It seems that people are more likely to speak up about what they’re thinking without a professor in the room, particularly in a class that can be rather critical of Middlebury.”

Rebekah Moon ’15 agreed. “I think people have a tendency to be more candid about personal experiences that relate to the material or their honest opinion about a particular ideology or event if there isn’t an official authoritative figure around, which is really nice.”

Admittedly, Mahon and Johansson feared that their identity as students would compromise their student-teacher relationships, giving their peers an excuse not to take them seriously, but they found the opposite to be true. Because students and instructors were naturally around each other outside the classroom, they found that conversations from class spilled over to lunch tables and everyday life. Further, they discovered that their identity as peers made members of the course feel more, rather than less, accountable.

“Since this is my last semester here, I have a lot of social things going on in my life,” said Gregg Butler ’13.5. “If I had taken another class, I think I would have done a lot less work. Because they’ve created this communal feel to the class, I want to throw myself into these things and I don’t want to disappoint them.”

On January 29, the last Wednesday of the term, the class presented their work to the public in conjunction with an exhibit in the Davis Family Library. (The exhibit opened a week before the presentation.) Among the topics discussed: the treatment of racial and religious minority students by fraternities in the ’40s and ’50s; a LGBTQ group organizing on campus during the ’90s and the first decade of this century; the ways in which Middlebury students have “passed” as members of different identity groups throughout the ages; and the campus political climate during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

“If a protest, by definition, is an expression of objection or disapproval, I think some of the students’ projects represented their ‘objections’ or ‘protest’ to the official history of Middlebury,” Rebekah Irwin, director of Collections, Archives & Digital Scholarship, commented after the presentation. “The College’s written history is incomplete, and the students very actively (and exhaustively) worked to make additions and corrections to the College’s historical record.”

Sara Bachman ’13.5 agreed with Irwin and added, “I think the student-led class is a little bit of an active protest saying that we’re going take charge, we can do this too.”

________________________________

Besides the panel on student protests in the ’60s and ’70s mentioned at the beginning, and the Web museum on the resistance and struggles in our community that students are continuously adding to, Special Collections also mounted an exhibit drawn from the College Archives—A People’s History of Middlebury College: Student Resistance and Social Change, based on the course.

The Case for Oratory

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Oratory is a group experience, a give and take between speaker and audience. In contrast with other subjects like physics or philosophy or the political history of France, the best indication of how much you are learning comes from how your fellow students (i.e., your audience) respond to your work.

Dana Yeaton leads a warm-up exercise using tai chi.

Dana Yeaton leads a warm-up exercise at the start of class.

That’s why Dana Yeaton ’79 teaches oratory in a workshop format. One of the 125 courses offered on campus during the 2014 Winter Term, Oratory: A Speechmaking Studio was a class on a mission.

“This course wants you knowledgeable about the history of rhetoric. It wants you passionate to explore the world of ideas and put what you find into words. It wants you confident that when you stand up and speak those words, people will listen and maybe even be changed,” Yeaton said in the first class.

“And to do all that you need each other. As an audience, yes, and as fellow travelers who will question and challenge and console each other along the way. Your best work will very likely come from the desire to engage your classmates.”

The 22 students were required to give a speech on the first day of J-term and a speech the next day and a dinner toast and a critical response to Pericles’ Funeral Oration. There was a mini-moth, a rant, a “great speech speech,” and a three-minute speech adapted from a term paper that had been written for any other class. There was also a TEDx pitch, a scripted and memorized TEDx talk, and probably one or two more speeches. And every speech was videotaped and critiqued by fellow students.

Yeaton, a visiting assistant professor of theatre, believes that great oratorical skills come from understanding the basics of rhetoric, gaining an appreciation for what makes a great speech, mastering the physical aspects of public speaking (use of voice, posture, eye contact, etc.), and practice, practice, practice.

Cole Bortz, from Littleton, Colorado, delivers his mini-moth speech.

Cole Bortz, a first-year student from Colorado, delivers a speech.

During the second week of class, the oratory students delivered their mini-moth speeches, which were five-minute-long personal stories told live without notes. By this time members of the class were well versed in their public-speaking basics: approaching the podium (or stage) with confidence, finding a solid neutrality in their stance, establishing a moment of solidarity with the audience, and enunciating clearly.

The class split up for a mini-moth practice session, and James Clifford, a junior from Tiburon, Calif., picked a partner and headed into the hallway of the Mahaney Center for the Arts looking for a place to work on his speech. He chose a quiet spot under the stairs and launched into his mini-moth about why his friends on the ski team call him “The Fireman.” (Moth talks are based on The Moth Radio Hour, an NPR show, and moth performances have been popular at Middlebury for the past four or five years.)

Clifford’s true story was about how he bonded with other members of the team on an Alpine ski-training trip out West. It involved a pan of flaming nachos, the local fire department, billows of smoke, and, well, that’s how he earned the moniker of “The Fireman.” After practicing his speech and reviewing the feedback, Clifford returned to the classroom where he would present it to the class.

“Oratory has been one of the most valuable pieces of my Middlebury education,” Clifford later said. “Through this class I found my voice on the page and I found my voice at the podium.”

The case for oratory is on the rise at Middlebury. Yeaton is working with a group of administrators who are discussing how to make proficiency in public speaking an expectation within the curriculum. Their effort comes on the heels of President Ron Liebowitz’s observation in Middlebury Magazine that alumni are saying the College could do a better job preparing its graduates for the rigors of public speaking.

All eyes are focused on the speaker.

In oratory, all eyes are focused on the speaker.

Sophomore Premlata Persaud from New Jersey is confident that the oratorical skills she gained during Winter Term will transfer to other classes. “I find it difficult sometimes in seminars to express my ideas in a way that really convinces my professors and other students, but now I have a checklist of sorts to go through before I make an important statement in class.”

Heading into the 2014 J-term, Dana Yeaton had high hopes that his class’s enthusiasm for oratory would spread across campus. “This course is designed as a laboratory in which we will be teaching each other the art of oratory,” he told his students. “You will be reading, analyzing, writing, and delivering speeches; you’ll do physical and vocal training, and focus exercises.” And he also said the class would be “exporting” this model through a workshop series and at the Martin Luther King Oratorio in Mead Chapel, which Yeaton directed.

The professor’s hope took root when the oratory students offered a series of public-speaking workshops open to anyone wishing to improve their oral communication skills. During the final week of Winter Term about a dozen students from the Middlebury Entrepreneurs class showed up at the workshop, anxious to hone their oratorical skills for the final projects they would present in their class the next day.

For two hours the oratory students became the teachers: they formed small groups, discussed principles of oratory, analyzed the visitors’ speeches, and led training exercises designed to build their guests’ public-speaking skills.

In a spontaneous moment during class one January afternoon, the students decided to form the Oratory Society of Middlebury. The group made a circle in the middle of Room 232 and composed the oath Ethos, Logos, Pathos for membership in the Oratory Society, which is open to the Middlebury College community. The College would now have a student organization committed to conducting workshops, sponsoring public-speaking events, and advocating for oratory’s place on campus.

If anyone were looking for a sign that students had bought in to the importance of oratory as a group learning experience, this was it.

Midd Goes to the Super Bowl

Categories: Midd Blogosphere
Damon Hatheway '13.5, on assignment for Middlebury Magazine, interviews Seattle Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka '07 at Super Bowl Media Day

Damon Hatheway ’13.5, on assignment for Middlebury Magazine, interviews Seattle Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka ’07 at Super Bowl Media Day

Super Bowl Media Day is an event that needs to be experienced to be believed. Hundreds of sports journalists, television personalities, and camera crews swarm, first to the tables topped with pastries, then to the players entering the arena. Out comes Richard Sherman, sardonically taking pictures of the media members flashing him with strobes; out comes quarterback Russell Wilson, all 5’10 and ¾’’ of him calm, cool, and collected; out comes head coach Pete Carroll, a jovial smile permanently fixed on his face. Behind them—and out of the glare from the jostling horde—is Seahawks’ kicker Steven Hauschka ’07.

Hauschka doesn’t have a booth to sit in or microphone to talk through or even a Gatorade to help promote the Super Bowl’s corporate sponsors. In fact, if he wasn’t dressed in Seattle’s team-issued sweats he would pass for any of the media members—well, maybe not the team from Entertainment Tonight—or fans in attendance.

Standing off in a back corner, the 6’4’’ Needham, Massachusetts, native answers questions from the Wall Street Journal (about where he has spent his time in Manhattan) and the New York Times  (“would you rather play one Bronco-sized duck or fifty duck-sized Broncos?”), generously engaging in these reporters’ shticks.

And it turns out that Hauschka spent the previous night at dinner with friends from Middlebury—a point for the Wall Street Journal.

“We went to dinner in Union Square, it was a great time,” he said. “It almost feels like you’re getting married—everyone wants to be there and share this special time with you.”

For the 28-year old, kicking in the Super Bowl would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Haushcka’s kicking career began unceremoniously; the former junior varsity soccer player missed three of his first four career attempts as a Middlebury Panther.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he said before adding, “I don’t remember that! I thought I made every kick I had at Middlebury.”

By the time his Panther career had ended, Hauschka seemingly had made every kick, rewriting the team’s record books and awing fans and his coaches alike with his accuracy and leg, booming kickoffs that often sailed through the uprights—75 yards away.

Division I teams began to take notice. With a year of football eligibility remaining, Hauschka played his final season at North Carolina State, where he was teammates with current Seahawks J.R. Sweezy and Wilson.

“He came in and could kick the ball for days, which was something that I had never seen before,” said Sweezy, who was a redshirt freshman at NC State when Hauschka arrived in the fall of 2007. “It was kind of cool knowing we had a good field goal kicker—he won a couple of big games for us.”

Hauschka had a game-winning kick on the road against Miami and was a finalist for the Lou Groza award, which recognizes the best placekicker in college football. But a career in the NFL was far from guaranteed. Hauschka was cut by five different teams, including John Fox’s Denver Broncos, and played for a stint in the United Football League, before catching on in Seattle. This year, in his third season with the Seahawks, Hauschka made 33 of 35 attempts as the second-most-accurate kicker in the NFL.

Jon Ryan, who holds for Hauschka in addition to his duties as a punter, said that Hauschka’s consistency is what distinguishes him from other kickers.

“He’s a real thinking-type guy, watches a lot of film and has become very consistent in all of his routines,” Ryan said. “That’s the most important part of punting and kicking, finding that consistency. He’s had one of the best seasons I’ve ever seen a kicker have, to be honest with you.”

Special teams coach Brian Schneider believes Hauschka’s off-the-field preparation creates that consistency.

 “Throughout the week what he does to get ready for a game is really something,” he said. “He’s too smart for me, that’s for sure.”

Nor does it hurt that Hauschka studied neuroscience at Middlebury, which he said has “helped him with the mental side of the game.”

But what of the pressure involved in kicking in front of 68,000 people, as he did in the Seahawks’ NFC Championship victory?

“The kicking is different,” he admitted. “[At Middlebury I] only kicked in front of 2,000 people at any one time.”

On the other hand, if Sunday’s Super Bowl forecast calls for snow, Hauschka’s experience kicking in Vermont, and around the NESCAC, may give him the upper hand.

“We kicked on some of the worst fields in the country—especially some of those grass fields when they got a lot of rain,” he said. “So that prepared me for some of the bad conditions that I would see in the NFL.”

A few minutes later, Deion Sanders walks over to interview Hauschka for the NFL Network. As Sanders walks away, Middlebury Magazine editor Matt Jennings asks him whether Hauschka will make a game-winning field goal if that’s what the game boils down to. Without hesitating, Sanders nods and says, “Oh, yes. He’ll make it. That’s for sure.”

Inside Midd Basketball

Categories: Midd Blogosphere, video
Midd_BB_Doc2_121013
Damon Hatheway, Fyle Finck, and Sasha Schell are producing a web video series on the Middlebury men’s basketball team.

Three student video makers plan to take their audience onto the court and behind the scenes of Middlebury’s men’s basketball team this season with a new documentary series titled “The Road to Salem.” The team has enjoyed a remarkable ascension through the ranks in recent years, and the new series hopes to capture the stories of this season.

Producer Kyle Finck ’14 dreamed up the series while studying abroad in Prague. “What fascinated me about Middlebury basketball was that at a college where every student is doing a thousand different things, there are few times where the different silos are brought together,” said Finck, who is also editor of The Middlebury Campus. “Middlebury basketball is one of those. Apart from commencement and convocation, where can you see 2,000 Middlebury students in one place?”

road_to_salem_brown
The audience gets a player’s-eye view of Coach Jeff Brown during practice.

Finck, Damon Hatheway ’13.5 and Sasha Schell ’15.5 amassed a huge library of game and practice footage over the past year. Hatheway is the lead writer, while Schell edits the series. Schell and Finck both shoot video. Two more students, Innocent Tswamuno ’15 and Ian Stewart ’14, add original music, and graphics respectively.

In the first installment we meet Coach Jeff Brown and learn that his remarkable success in recent years was hard earned over many challenging seasons at Middlebury. Finck says the goal is not to create a promotional piece, but to tell an honest, compelling story about coaches and players.

With a documentary flavor, the story alternates on-court action with practices and thoughtful interviews. Episodes planned for second semester include player profiles, the big game against Williams, and the uniquely emotional rivalry with Amherst College. Later, depending on the team’s success, look for coverage of the NESCAC and NCAA tournaments. “Salem” in the title refers to Salem, Virginia, home of the NCAA Division III Final Four in March.

Here are the first two episodes. Stay tuned for more.

Concerned About Food Security

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

There is a new player in the fight against hunger in Addison County, and it’s the Middlebury College students spearheading a new project called Middlebury Foods.

Family boxes being assembled for the December distribution.

Family boxes — bags, really — being assembled for the December distribution.

During the past year, seven undergraduates have worked together to form a nonprofit organization based on the model of Top Box Foods in Chicago. Their goal: to provide nutritious food to Middlebury-area residents at an affordable cost, and to do it on a regular, predictable basis.

One of the founders of Middlebury Foods, Harry Cohen ’15, said, the idea took shape “when our friend Chris Kennedy proposed that we do something about hunger in Addison County. We realized there is a lot of need here, and the transportation challenges are different than in Chicago.”

The group researched where to buy quality food at wholesale prices in Vermont, and figured out ways to transport it, store it, and distribute it to residents. They raised $3,000 via a MiddChallenge grant from the College’s Project on Creativity and Innovation, and another $8,000 through the “microphilanthropy” website MiddStart. They worked with state regulators, talked to entrepreneurs, and consulted lawyers and food experts – all before kicking off their project in October 2013.

A typical “family box” from Middlebury Foods costs $35 and contains six pounds of meat and poultry, two pounds of pasta, and eight pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. The organizers of Middlebury Foods say the family box comprises enough food for about 28 main meals, or the equivalent of seven dinners for a family of four, and each box comes with suggested recipes such as this month’s pasta alfredo with turkey sausage and broccoli.

To say that Middlebury Foods has been a success might be an understatement. In its inaugural month, October, the organization helped meet the food-security needs of 50 Addison County families with family boxes distributed from its base of operations at HOPE (formerly the Addison County Community Action Group) and from its second distribution site at the Mary Johnson Children’s Center in Middlebury.

In November the group sold 80 family boxes from the two sites and then, as the calendar approached Thanksgiving, Middlebury Foods expanded by offering “meat boxes” — 11 pounds of chicken, turkey, and sausage for $30 — and selling them to 20 customers.

For its December distribution Middlebury Foods diversified again by offering three different products (family boxes, meat boxes, and $25 vegetable boxes) at its two Middlebury sites and at third site about 20 miles north of the College at the North Ferrisburgh United Methodist Church. In total, 90 families were served.

As Middlebury Foods’ customer base grows, the efficiency of its operation increases along with it.  “The more customers we serve,” said Cohen, the group’s operations director, “the more sustainable we become.” It’s a practical application of the economy of scale. For example, when Middlebury Foods sends a truck up to Burlington to pick meat, if it can buy 600 pounds instead of 400 pounds, then the transportation cost of their meat per customer decreases.

“We are beginning to near our capacity, but we are not there yet,” Cohen added. “We don’t screen our customers to meet certain income guidelines, and we are always looking for new people in the region to serve.”

Juniors Nathan Weil (l.) and Elias Gilman, and others,  pack each delivery by hand.

Juniors Nathan Weil (l.) and Elias Gilman, and others, pack each delivery by hand.

Economics aside, there is an important social factor at work with Middlebury Foods. While packing the December family boxes with apples and bananas, junior Elias Gilman, another founder of Middlebury Foods, said, “Not only is this project fulfilling, it’s also a fun and interesting experience for us. It’s thrilling to meet a lot of people from the community and have them appreciate what we do. Our products are very, very good, and people see that, and so there’s been open-armed enthusiasm for what we are doing.”

Nathan Weil, also a founder, never paused while weighing tomatoes and figuring out how many to put in each box. He said: “Our first goal is to keep the price of our food attainable for our customers. It’s an interesting balance that we are trying to strike here, especially in Vermont where most everyone is so environmentally conscious. We want to provide good food at a good price while helping our customers reduce their carbon miles.”

Middlebury Foods “has been a blessing for each of us because we are also getting an invaluable lesson in running our own business. We have to work out logistics; we have to deal with marketing challenges; and we have to do our own customer relations. The problem-solving aspects of this have been great for all of us,” Weil realized.

Addison County is a region with numerous opportunities to help the hungry, and HOPE (Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects) is a major driver in that effort with its daily food shelf, gleaning program, just soup project, food drives, HOPE garden, and more.

Jeanne Montross, the executive director of HOPE, supports Middlebury Foods and appreciates the efforts of its students. “I applaud them for coming up with a creative response to hunger. Their model is designed for people who can afford to pay a fair price for their food. I am hopeful that a portion of our clients at HOPE will continue to find this model worthwhile over time.”

Middlebury Foods accepts all forms of payment for its once-a-month food deliveries, including the EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards issued by state welfare agencies.

In addition to Cohen, Gilman, Kennedy, and Weil, the other founders of Middlebury Foods — all juniors — are Jack Cookson, Eddie Dañino-Beck, and Oliver Mayers, and they are all starting to get recognized around town.

“One of the coolest things about this whole project,” Gilman added, “is that people in the community are now getting to know us. Now when they see us they say, ‘Hey, we know you. You are the food guys!’”