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Board of Directors Report: New England Food Co-Ops Target Healthy Food Access PDF Print E-mail

by Bob Crego
November 2013


Did you know that 85,000 Vermonters are “food insecure”?

That’s 13% of Vermont households–a significant number that no doubt impacts a friend, a relative, a neighbor– a number of families in your community.

Hunger Free Vermont, a nonprofit committed to tackling hunger in our communities, defines food insecurity as the “lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to a lack of financial resources.  Adults in households determined to be food insecure are so limited in resources that they are running out of food, reducing the quality of food their family eats, feeding their children unbalanced diets, or skipping meals so that that their children can eat.”

Area food co-ops are playing an important role in addressing this problem. The Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) is partnering with Hunger Free Vermont, the Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE), and the New England Farmers Union (NEFU) to help co-ops in the region to create programs that increase healthy food access and end hunger.

The NFCA, of which the Brattleboro Food Co-op is a member, is a network of 34 food co-ops and start-up initiatives that are working together toward a shared vision of a thriving economy founded in a healthy, just, and sustainable food system.  At NFCA’s Fall Member Gathering on September 7, more than 100 attendees from member food co-ops and 10 partnering organizations focused on the resources, initiatives, and infrastructure needed to make area food co-ops accessible to low-income consumers.

Faye Conte of Hunger Free Vermont, the keynote speaker at the meeting, pointed out that as “community-minded, locally-owned food stores, co-ops are well-suited to address food access in their communities.  By creating discount programs, offering affordable products, and creating a shopping environment that is welcoming to everyone, co-ops create programs that increase access to healthy, affordable food.”

According to Bonnie Hudspeth, Membership and Outreach Coordinator at NFCA, “The co-op movement has a long history of empowering people to meet their needs through democratically controlled, member-oriented businesses.  As food co-ops are owned by—and accountable to—their community members, they are well positioned to expand the benefits of healthy food and co-op ownership to low-income community members.”  
At the gathering, CFNE’s Micha Josephy outlined six “leverage points” for serving low-income communities through food co-ops.  These leverage points can be thought of as essential resources or key tasks which must be employed or achieved in order to effectively remove the barriers to food access:
• Developing and drawing on community partnerships in order to design and publicize the program
• Creating affordable ownership, making shares in the co-op affordable
• Ensuring affordable products at the co-op
• Educating individuals regarding how to buy in bulk and to prepare healthy, affordable meals
• Achieving inclusive marketing, including in-store signage, advertising, and staff training
• Developing and implementing infrastructure such as Point Of Sale (POS) sign up/eligibility recertification or transportation options to ensure on-going, optimal use of the program

NFCA and CFNE have developed a toolbox of resources and partnered with Hunger Free Vermont to provide technical assistance to co-ops that wish to develop their own program.  Currently BFC and the Putney Co-op are working closely together along these lines.  A model food access program that they are utilizing—and which draws on all of the leverage points above—is the City Market/Onion River Food Co-op’s Food for All Program.
Food for All assists people receiving various public benefits such as EBT, WIC, and Social Security Disability Benefits, by offering them a 10% discount on all non-alcoholic purchases.  (Since the program began in Burlington in late 2008, EBT and WIC sales at City Market/Onion River have skyrocketed by 47% in 2009 and 2010, and by 90% in 2011. In the program’s first year, 573 new members enrolled.  By 2012, the co-op had more than 1,140 individuals and families enrolled.  In 2011, City Market/Onion River acknowledged that 5% of its total sales ($1.6 million) came from participants in the Food for All program.

This success has much to do with collaboration with local nonprofits that promote Food for All to their clients. Marissa Parisi, Executive Director of Hunger Free Vermont, sees the Food for All program as “allowing people to make their money go further while providing other benefits that are unique to co-ops, such as food-related education and bulk items that are culturally appropriate for diverse populations.”  According to Parisi, Food for All has been a successful way for City Market/Onion River Co-op to reach a demographic that has historically not taken advantage of food co-ops.
Given BFC’s educational and school-based programming, our Co-op is already well positioned to draw on the community network of organizations to help develop a successful Food for All program locally. In addition, management has determined that, when the needs-based discount program is instituted, increased sales would cover the resultant lost profitability for that portion of sales. BFC's partnership with Community Health advocates at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital to offer the “Indulge in Healthy Cooking” series, a set of six classes based on the Learning Kitchen model, reaches out to families to debunk some food myths, and guide participants in making healthy choices that go much further in feeding the family. Another series will be offered after the holidays. Similarly, the Pennywise Pantry in-store tours and discussions go a long way to familiarize participants to the treasures throughout the store that stretch the family dollar and give much longer nutritive value. After-school programming incorporates much of the same approach for a younger audience. Shareholders who are interested in this initiative can participate by volunteering for cooking demos at area food shelves, staffing tables at fairs, etc. Please don't hesitate to get involved to better address the issues of hunger in our community.
Simple applications for the Healthy Food for All Program will be available in the store by December, which will go into effect in January.