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Middlebury Foods in the Spotlight

By Ellie Greenberg

Tables are set up in a line, speed-dating style—only instead of dating, think farming. Around 30 Vermont growers (consisting of produce and livestock farmers, cheese makers and product makers of soup and energy bars) gathered at the Buyers and Growers Forum in Middlebury in March of 2016. Hosted by the Addison County Relocation Network, the forum aimed to connect growers with people interested in the local food system.

Vermont farmer Paul Horton approached two Middlebury students in attendance with a statement that caught their attention. “I have over one thousand pounds of leftover onions. Can you guys take them?”

The two students looked at one another and nodded in amazement – the onions could certainly be added to next month’s produce supply for Middlebury Foods.

Middlebury Foods, an entirely studentrun nonprofit grocery distribution program, provides local, fresh and healthy food to families in Addison County every month. Middlebury Foods’ website describes a process in which the organization replaces the supermarket middleman by buying directly from wholesale distributers which, in turn, saves the customers around 20 to 50 percent of the typical supermarket cost. Making healthy food more affordable has a significant impact on a community where, according to Hunger Free Vermont, one in five Addison County children is food insecure.

Started in the fall of 2013 with a grant from the Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Middlebury Foods delivers produce monthly in bulk to six different sites across Addison County where customers can quickly and efficiently pick up their prearranged box of fresh produce. According to the organization’s current procurement manager Mike Pallozzi ’18.5, Middlebury Foods moves a tremendous amount of local food each month: around 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of produce plus an additional 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of meat, eggs, cheese, pasta, coffee and bread to almost 300 families each month.

“Since the buyers and growers forum last March, there has been a tremendous push towards offering our customers a complete variety of local products,” Pallozzi said.

Middlebury Foods intertwines students, community members and farmers in such a way that everybody benefits: the students work to run this nonprofit while simultaneously meeting people beyond the College’s boundaries; the farmers are able to grow more produce and reach a larger quantity of buyers; the community has access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. But Middlebury Foods is about more than the local produce–it is about the interactions and the relationships formed.

Farmers and Food

Emphasizing the importance of a localized food network, Middlebury Foods has recently pushed to focus on local farms when gathering produce for the monthly food drops. Currently, Middlebury Foods sources from more than 10 different farmers and producers based in Addison County.

“Under my leadership as procurement manager a ton has changed,” Pallozzi said. “Mostly the introduction and ever-expanding line of locally-sourced products that consist of meats, dairy, eggs, bread and pastas.”

The 1,000 pounds of leftover onions farmer Paul Horton offered to Middlebury Foods proved to be the birth of an important relationship between his farm and the organization. Following the onion incident, Horton provided new and more produce to Middlebury Foods each month until he eventually became the most consistent source for Middlebury Foods.

Pallozzi and other members of Middlebury Foods visited Horton’s farm last year to meet with Horton and learn about his production model. Prior to the trip down to Foggy Meadow Produce in Benson, Pallozzi had only spoken with Horton on the phone and met him once during the onion encounter. “I had never gotten to see his farm or how he ran his operation,” Pallozzi recalls.

“He took four hours out of his day … to sit down and carefully explain the process and thinking behind his farm.”

This encounter was important for Pallozzi because it laid the groundwork for a meaningful relationship with not only Horton and Foggy Meadow Produce, but with future farmers providing for Middlebury Foods.

“Meeting Paul Horton made me appreciate a whole lot more what he does. The relationship we built with him pushes us to reach out to other farmers to see how they run their operations,” Pallozzi said.

And the farmers appreciate the effort.

The relationship with Middlebury Foods has enabled Paul Horton to grow extra produce in the fall, keep it in storage facilities throughout the winter and distribute the produce monthly to Pallozzi and the rest of the Middlebury Food volunteers.

“Middlebury Foods has been a good, steady account,” Horton said. “They have a great mission and are wonderful to deal with – I am glad to be a part of it.”

Community

Pallozzi first got involved with Middlebury Foods his sophomore fall. After spending time volunteering at the College’s Organic Farm, Pallozzi knew he wanted to invest more time in Vermont’s local food and agriculture scene.

“I started by just going to deliveries and talking with local businesses,” Pallozzi said. “Middlebury Foods spoke out to me because every month you are interacting with people who live in this community.”

Addison County resident Sue Schweppe, a frequent Middlebury Foods customer, is one of the community members Pallozzi has met through his work with the organization.

“I’ve been very impressed,” Schweppe said of Middlebury Foods, referencing their “easy to use” website, order reminders and several pick-up locations. “They really have it together,” she added.

Middlebury Foods organizes five different bags filled with different produce each month. From the Essentials Bag (containing root veggies) to the Meat Box (a combination of three different meat offerings), the students volunteering with Middlebury Foods come together to prearrange various produce boxes based on what is fresh.

“I don’t choose the monthly produce,” Schweppe said. “And so sometimes I get items I wouldn’t normally buy in a supermarket. This way, I am given an opportunity to try something new.”

The blog, a feature of Middlebury Foods’ website, provides recipes and cooking ideas inspired by the monthly produce available and provided.

But beyond the tangible impact of the produce Schweppe receives every month is the relationship she has developed with, as she describes, the “very passionate and friendly” Middlebury students. “It is very nice to see the College represented in such a strong, positive face,” Schweppe said.

Students

The sense of community trust and relationship building is a two-way street, felt strongly by the Middlebury students as well. Middlebury Foods exposes student volunteers to new people and experiences beyond the confines of a classroom.

In his first semester at Middlebury, Charlie Mitchell ’18 was encouraged by a friend to consider volunteering for Middlebury Foods. Three years later, Mitchell holds a central role in the organization, currently working with the Development Team. Mitchell’s main responsibilities include fundraising and strategic planning for the nonprofit.

Through his work with Middlebury Foods, Mitchell has met numerous members of Addison County’s community from the director of the United Way, Department of Health, Parent/Child Center, to school foodservice directors and principals, Legion Commanders, farmers, cheesemakers, distributors and the local families during monthly pickups.

“Middlebury Foods is my favorite excuse to get to know incredibly smart and dedicated leaders who are working every day to make our community better,” Mitchell said.

With the success of Middlebury Foods, it is easy to forget that the organization is completely student-run. Students pick up and deliver the produce. Students organize, finance and run Middlebury Foods – all on a volunteer basis. Middlebury Foods was founded, exists and is successful today because of the time and effort students have invested into helping Middlebury Foods make an impact on the Addison County community.

While Middlebury Foods does influence the community, the organization is simultaneously imparting lasting effects on the student volunteers.

“I have learned almost everything I’ve learned at Middlebury from Middlebury Foods,” Mitchell said. “It’s taught me how to conduct meetings, organize a business and a nonprofit, improvise and solve problems, initiate, develop and sometimes end relationships, communicate with and try to inspire my peers, network and follow up in the community and College and lead effectively.”

Pallozzi, too, is grateful for the community network he has established through working with the nonprofit. “I think Middlebury Foods has opened my eyes to what this community is actually like,” Pallozzi said. “We spend a lot of time working with dining and facilities; real people that make this place work, even though it’s usually behind the scenes.”

In talking about the community, Pallozzi added, “It is a beautiful place.”

Middlebury Foods is successful in bringing fresh, local and affordable produce to community members each month. But the organization is also successful in creating and building lasting relationships between students and the community.

As the semester and classes wind to a close, Middlebury Foods is working hard to prepare an anxious and excited group of interns to embrace the busiest time of the year. Summer means new produce, new products and new projects as interns are able to devote extra time to Middlebury Foods without the worry of course work. Who knows? Maybe a bag will include a few of Horton’s onions this summer.

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