• Vt. college students create unusual food program
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     | December 26,2013
     
    WILSON RING / AP Photo

    Middlebury College students Elias Gilman, left, Eddie Danino-Beck, center, and Oliver Mayers prepare to unload frozen meat from the back of a van in Middlebury. The meat is being sold as part of a program the students developed to sell healthy food to the needy and others at a fraction of the cost of supermarkets.

    MIDDLEBURY — A group of Middlebury College students has created an unusual program that sells high-quality food, including meat and produce, to local residents at a fraction of the cost for the same products at a supermarket.

    It’s not free, it’s separate from area food shelves and there are no income restrictions, but the group sells its products through local community organizations and churches, aiming for a clientele that doesn’t always eat, or know how to prepare, healthy meals.

    Each of the boxes the group sells contains enough food for a family of four for a week and a number of healthy recipes. The cost is $35.

    “The stuff that’s in the box is good. It’s real good stuff,” said Wilma Hallock, 82, of Lincoln, who heard about Middlebury Foods while visiting HOPE in Middlebury and picking up food for her and her husband. “You can make quite a few meals out of that.”

    One of the organizers, Harry Zieve-Cohen, a Middlebury junior from New York City who is majoring in literary studies, noted that it provides “supermarket-quality food at fast-food prices to Vermonters who have a hard time purchasing food and getting by day-to-day, who face challenges.”

    He said, “We’re giving them an opportunity to have healthier food on their tables and to be healthier people and be happier, and have more time on their hands because they don’t have to go to the grocery store as much.”

    Even though Middlebury Foods is set up as a nonprofit group, it’s not a charity. Still Zieve-Cohen said he and the other organizers worried their efforts would come across as paternalistic.

    “We aren’t a charity organization that is giving people handouts, we are giving people an opportunity,” he said. “People choose to use our products. This business only works if people like it. If they don’t like our food they don’t buy it, the business fails, we’re done.”

    The idea for Middlebury Foods came from Top Box Foods, a Chicago nonprofit group founded by Christopher and Sheila Kennedy. Christopher Kennedy Sr. is the chairman of the board of the University of Illinois Chicago, and the son of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He and his wife, Sheila, are the parents of one of the Middlebury students, Chris Kennedy Jr.

    The two-year-old Chicago group distributes foods through city churches in what the organization considers the city’s food deserts, said Sheila Kennedy, executive dierector of Top Box.

    But beyond the idea, Middlebury Foods is a creation of the students.

    Former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, the executive in residence at Middlebury College, was on a committee that provided a $3,000 seed grant to Middlebury Foods. Since the grant was awarded in March, Douglas has kept in touch with the students to see how the project is going.

    “What struck me is that it addresses a compelling immediate need,” Douglas said. “There were other great ideas for businesses, products and services of various kinds. I hope all the competing groups succeed, but as we continue to struggle to come out of the Great Recession, it seemed to me and the other judges that this is something to which we need to devote whatever resources we can.”

    But other than the grant, the seven students did it on their own, including raising about $11,000 in private funds, Zieve-Cohen said.

    They started finding their customers by approaching a local organization known as HOPE, for Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, the home of the Middlebury area food shelf.

    They’ve also done outreach to housing developments and assisted living facilities and they’re teaming up with the North Ferrisburgh Methodist Church.

    “With the Middlebury Foods, people are raving about it. Anybody of any income can buy it, so I have people who could afford to go to the grocery store, but they’re buying it because it makes it worth these kids’ while to come,” said the Ferrisburgh pastor, the Rev. Kim Hornung-Marcy.

    After six months of preparation, the students had their first delivery in October. Now people order ahead of time and they deliver once a month, currently at three locations, although they’re hoping to expand.

    During its first delivery in October, Middlebury Foods distributed 50 boxes. At the December delivery they sold 100 boxes, but could have sold at least 50 more if they would have been able to accept food stamps.

    They expect business to take off once their approved to take electronics benefits, commonly known as food stamps, which they’re expecting next month, said Nathan Weil, a junior from Nyan, Switzerland.

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