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 — 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.
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!’”