Middlebury Foods is a not-for-profit, social entrepreneurship endeavor that aims to bring healthy food at an affordable price to Vermonters. Recently incorporated by the state of Vermont, the business, run by seven juniors, has come a long way since winning the $3,000 MiddChallenge grant in March of 2013.“We cut out the supermarket and we cut out the cashier and we cut out the overhead costs associated with distribution, advertising and marketing,” said Harry Zieve-Cohen ’15, MiddFoods director of operations, of the company’s business plan.The idea, selling a $35 cardboard box filled with a week’s worth of healthy meals for a family of four, came from a similar organization called Top Box, based in Chicago. However, the rural settings of Middlebury and Vermont meant that the team had to adapt the model to fit its environment.“Distance is a huge factor,” said Eddie Dañino-Beck ’15, director of human resource. One of MiddFoods’ biggest hurdles has been finding the means to deliver food to a variety of customers, a feat much easier in a population-dense, urban location.
Cooperating with an array of community members, therefore, became a key effort in the team’s endeavor and allowed them to work with the geography of their location instead of letting it hinder their idea.
Earlier this summer, the team sent feelers out to members of the Middlebury community: from H.O.P.E, a poverty relief agency in the town to the Middlebury Chief of Police to local food providers and churches, attending community suppers and even holding their own lunch for residents. They have since worked with the current and ex-governor of Vermont. At this rate, they hope to expand their business into Rutland and Burlington counties by the end of the year.
With their expansion from the College into town, however, came a sense of hesitancy.
“We were really careful from the beginning, knowing that we’re a group of college students who didn’t grow up in Vermont, bringing something to a population that has needs that we might not be aware of,” said Zieve- Cohen.
The team also feared resistance from other local food providers or hunger relief organizations. Their worries were quelled, however, as they began to talk to community members and explain their plans.
“We were originally told we would see a conflict with us joining the market and maybe taking away from some of their business,” Oliver Mayers ’15, director of public relations and media, said. “[But] what we encountered when we spoke to the people at H.O.P.E. is that people actually supported us. They wanted us to go forward with the project.”
Soon after their initial outreach efforts, partnerships with H.O.P.E, Score (an organization that mentors start-up companies), Black River Produce, Sunrise Orchards, and relationships with citizens of Middlebury grew and solidified, as the team worked on campus this summer. Negotiations to partner with the College itself are still underway.
Though the company is still in its early stages, working toward their first sale date on Oct. 4, they are confident in the fruition of their idea and look forward to its growth.
“I think when you look at things that succeed and things that fail these days, things that succeed are simple ideas, and this is a relatively simple idea,” Zieve-Cohen said of the group’s success thus far. “People get [our idea]. When we go and talk to them about it, they understand what we’re doing. No matter what is going on we know where we’re headed, we know what needs to be done. It’s very easy to see how it fits into the big picture, because the big picture isn’t very complicated.”
Eating local should be easy. This box embraces the locavore movement with only the simplest, drawing greens from exclusively in-state food distributors — including green beans from the College’s organic farm – “which is about as local as it gets,” said Mayers.MiddFoods hope that this focus is what will launch them from the small Middlebury community to a venture that embraces the whole state in the swing of a national locavore movement, a movement the team believes has several different advantages.“We think it makes an important statement about the environment and about supporting local economy,” said Zieve-Cohen. “If we’re buying from local farmers who often have a hard time finding customers, then we’re supporting the local economy in a way that we’re not if we’re buying from a farm in California.”But the team continues to prioritize affordability over their drive to stay local.
“If the lettuce from a local farmer is going to be twice as expensive as the lettuce from California, we think we have a duty to our customers to sell them the cheaper lettuce,” he said.
While the idea seems to have universal appeal – who wouldn’t want healthy food for a lower price – the team has had to consider the habits of their targeted consumers.
“People don’t necessarily want a vegetable they’ve never heard of,” Jack Cookson ’15, Director of Sales and Local Affairs, said. “Even if it’s really healthy, they don’t want quinoa salad. They want these staples of foods that they feel comfortable with.”
Thanks to network ties with the area, Middlebury Foods was able to work with H.O.P.E. to survey their audiences on what foods they need, helping to serve weekly meals at the organization’s center to learn more from the potential customers themselves.
Though simplicity is their mantra, food education is also integral to Middlebury Food’s operations: boost healthy eating habits with local, organic food. Local restaurant and food operators such as Sama’s and the Middlebury Co-op have contributed their own recipes to the box, as has world-class chef Michel Nishan, who specializes in sustainable cooking. The seven team members have even been toying with sharing their own culinary concoctions inside the box.
This smooth learning and teaching network in Vermont is what this makes green mapping this social business so ripe for success. Community-supported agriculture is working here, because a strong community network coupled with a plain and simple idea comes together to form a unique energy. Such an ingredient is what makes this idea so good.