Middlebury Foods Tackles Local Hunger

By Emilie Munson

Though most of us overlook it, the College, one of the wealthiest institutions in the state, is located in one of the poorest counties in Vermont: Addison County. In the three counties surrounding Middlebury, 30,000 people have inadequate access to healthy food and frequently go hungry. A quarter of these people are youth.

Inspired by their varying backgrounds with food and a similar project in Chicago, Ill., this summer, seven sophomores will be seeking to tackle this pervasive issue of hunger and malnourishment in the local area.

Meet Middlebury Foods, the brainchild of Jack Cookson ’15, Eduardo Dañino-Beck ’15, Elias Gilman ’15, Chris Kennedy ’15, Oliver Mayers ’15, Nathan Weil ’15 and Harry Zieve Cohen ’15. Together, these students worked with another winner of this year’s MiddChallenge, Share the Surplus, a program which funds student projects to solve societal problems.

Middlebury Foods seeks to sell supermarket quality foods at fast food prices, providing access to healthier food options to more people. Middlebury Foods will obtain high quality meats and produce by ordering through Middlebury Dining, the Organic Garden and other local vendors. The students and other volunteers will then package a week’s worth of food into boxes and distribute these at various community organizations, such as local churches and shelters. The boxes will be sold for about $27-30 to thirty dollars a box, meaning that each meal contained in the box will cost a family about $1.50 per person.

“It’s a savings of about 40 percent per week on dinners, and it’s also going to be better quality food than you’d get at Shaw’s,” said Cookson.

To get off the ground, Middlebury Foods received a grant of $3,000 from the College’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship for winning MiddsChallenge.

Middlebury Foods will operate as a non-profit organization, using the profits from each sale of food boxes to increase production and target more people. Additionally, Middlebury Foods will donate five percent of its profits to the community groups with which it partners.

Cookson and Zieve Cohen explained that by delivering the food boxes to convenient community locations, Middlebury Foods can greatly increase the customer base it serves.

“You don’t have to go to the grocery store or deal with the lines anymore; it’s there,” said Zieve Cohen.

“[This system] also addresses the problem of people who don’t have cars and actually have trouble accessing groceries,” said Cookson. “Not only is it convenient but it makes it possible to get food without having to depend on somebody else.”

Weil views this delivery system as a key to eradicating malnourishment in an agrarian state like Vermont.

“Housing is so spread among the rural state that it’s often hard for people to go to a (…) healthy grocery store, as opposed to the gas station down the street that has some produce but mostly just packaged goods,” said Weil. “We’re really targeting the root causes of the issue as opposed to just the symptoms.”

Middlebury Foods is also unique in the educational aspect of its enterprise. Each food box will contain an informational packet with recipes on how to prepare the food in nutritious ways, generated by local nutritionists, a doctor and chefs in the area. The group hopes that in this way Middlebury Foods can teach its clientele about making healthy food choices.

Zieve Cohen noted that this method of hunger relief helps foster a family-oriented atmosphere in addition to its other services.

Adding recipes “encourages people to eat at home and to sit around a dinner table and have a meal that they can feel proud of having prepared themselves,” said Zieve Cohen.

After hearing of the project, James Jermain Professor Emeritus of Political Economics and International Law Russ Leng, offered his support. When asked what he views to be the most promising aspect of the project, he replied, “I like the idea of doing something local, that helps people who could use a hand, but does so without just giving them a hand-out.  Most Vermonters are self-reliant, and do not like to ask for help.  This is an idea that gives them a good deal, but one that they pay for themselves.”

Middlebury Foods hopes to work with other food-related efforts at the College and continue their work with Share the Surplus to generate momentum for its project.

“There’s a lot of energy around the issues of food on campus, whether its sustainability and environmentalism or nutrition and health; they’re all interrelated,” said Weil. “There’s a really big and strong base for us to all work together on campus going forwards.”

If they succeed this summer, the Middlebury Foods group members hope to continue this project for the rest of their college careers.

Students can get involved by volunteering to help package and sort food this summer or in the following semesters, or by donating on MiddStart, Middlebury’s online fundraising hub, at go/middstart.