Three years ago, a group of Middlebury College students created a program to provide locally-sourced food at wholesale prices in hopes of helping low-income families. Those students have since graduated, but others are carrying on their work.
According to Hunger Free Vermont, for the families of one in five Addison County children, getting healthy meals on the table every day is a financial hardship.
Every month, Middlebury students roll up to four Addison County locations and unload an assortment of fresh fruit and produce, meat and eggs.
Most of the food has been preordered, and at a recent drop-off location in Middlebury it was all bagged, boxed and ready for pickup.
“We’ve got two pounds of rice in here. We’ve got some kale, broccoli, oranges, potatoes, acorn squash,” said Middlebury sophomore Charlie Mitchell as he inventoried a family box waiting for pickup.
Mitchell heads up the program called Middlebury Foods, and gets help from 20 or 30 fellow student volunteers.
He says the program provides more than 5,000 pounds of food monthly to nearly 200 families.
Much of the produce is purchased from a Vermont distributor, but the chicken, beef, eggs and apples come from local farms.
Because the program is staffed by volunteers and there’s little overhead, the food is sold with little or no markup. Mitchell says current prices are 30 to 40 percent below the local supermarkets.
“It’s a really cost-effective and time-saving way for busy parents to make the time and space in their budget to cook really good food for their kids," says Mitchell. "That’s where we have the most impact right now."
The program is also helping local producers. Mitchell says one meat producer expanded to meet the demand.
Middlebury Foods took a big step toward serving more food insecure families this year when it began accepting benefits for those in SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps.
“We really couldn’t market to people who were truly food insecure before we took SNAP benefits. And that was a long battle, and that was only in January,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell says Middlebury Foods is also changing its schedule and looking at adding new drop-off points to better serve food insecure families.
The customers in Middlebury came for a variety of reasons. One wanted to support the program, another wanted to eat healthier.
Jessica Ringey, who works at a local child care center and came to pick up a meat preorder, says the value is important to her.
“I just started and the price for a meat box compared to going to the store for my family saves us a lot of money. And we get more food out of it,” she said.
Middlebury Foods takes a come one, come all approach for good reason.
The more customers, the greater the volume. This lets the program lower its prices, which it did recently.
Now, for example, the popular family box, which contains at least 12 pounds of produce, 2 pounds of rice and 5 pounds of meat costs $30.
Middlebury Foods summer manager Alex Brockelman, who’s a sophomore, says he’s motivated by the way everyone can participate to help the program reach its goal.
“I think this is a vehicle that a whole community can come together around and make sure that our food system is fair and working for everyone,” says Brockelman.
Middlebury Foods is self-sustaining at this point and those who are involved in it now say they’re confident younger students will continue the project once the current volunteers graduate.