Middlebury Foods calls it quits


MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STUDENTS make a recent delivery of reduced-price, locally produced foods. Photo by Nora Peachin

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Foods — a Middlebury College student-run nonprofit that for the past six years has been placing reduced-price, locally produced foods into the hands of scores of Addison County residents — will be making its final deliveries on Sept. 13 and 15.

“After a long and thoughtful discussion, we’ve determined that continuing retail operations is no longer the best way for us to serve folks in Addison County and surrounding areas,” reads a statement from Middlebury Foods leaders on middlebury-foods.myshopify.com.

“We feel honored to have had the chance to participate in and contribute to the Addison County food system, and we want to express our thanks to you, our customers,” the statement continues. “We will continue to be engaged in the food system as Middlebury College students, and we are excited to have an opportunity to reevaluate how to channel our time and energy to best benefit the local community.”

Middlebury Foods team members told the Independent they and their colleagues were finding it increasingly hard to balance their scholastic responsibilities with the many hours of work it takes each week to run a nonprofit. Middlebury Foods must replenish its volunteer base as students cycle in and out of the college, and there are many options for those students looking to perform good works.

“It’s hard to run a business with so many people going in and out with graduating seniors and students studying abroad, with people looking to spend their college time differently,” said Kate Peters, a member of the Middlebury Foods leadership team and a rising senior at the college.

Student Bea Lee served as co-manager of the organization’s summer program.

“Running any kind of nonprofit organization entirely on volunteer labor is not a sustainable organizational practice,” said Lea. “What ends up happening is that not only is it stressful for the people involved in the volunteering and day-to-day operations, but that stress also results in a lack of quality service for our customers. We are at this critical juncture where a lot of our staff are going to be graduating next year.”

Middlebury Foods’ philosophy has been to procure food directly from wholesale distributors, thus allowing it to be sold at up to 50 percent less than what would cost at the supermarket. Food box items typically include fresh produce, vegetables, meat and eggs.

The group sources more than 15 offerings from more than 10 farmers and producers in Addison County. Collaborating local wholesalers have included the Misty Knoll and Smith Family farms in New Haven, Maple Meadow Farm in Salisbury, and Stonewood Farm in Orwell.

Student volunteers deliver the food to local population hubs like schools, American Legion posts and Porter Hospital. The reduced prices are particularly appreciated by folks on a budget, and Middlebury Foods has been able to serve those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Middlebury Foods has been a plus for all participants. Consumers get low-cost, healthy foods. Producers get added business. And student volunteers are exposed to the people and places beyond Middlebury College campus, all while learning firsthand what it takes to run a nonprofit.

“I’ve always been grateful for the ability to interact with the rest of Addison County,” Lea said. “Very often, it’s easy to get stuck in the ‘Middlebury bubble,’ because Middlebury is an incredibly privileged school that to a large extent does a lot to make life comfortable for its students. The town of Middlebury itself is a wonderful, privileged place to be. But the rest of Addison County doesn’t look like that. Working with Middlebury Foods has allowed me to interact with people from all parts of Addison County from all socio-economic statuses.”

Peters agreed. She said the rewards of her volunteer work have included, “Getting to engage with students in a non-academic climate, while also being able to engage with adults from the community. Having those genuine connections was something that was really amazing.”

Not that there haven’t been tough times. Sourcing, packing, transporting and accounting for regular distributions of food can be stressful, Peters acknowledged. But those experiences will serve the student volunteers well as they pursue their professional careers.

“There’s not been a professional interview I’ve had where I haven’t talked about the skills I’ve learned at Middlebury Foods,” she said.

Middlebury student (and Addison Independent summer intern) Nora Peachin has served as Middlebury Foods’ procurement manager for the past two years. She’ll take away fond memories of her time with the organization.

“For me, Middlebury Foods was most importantly an opportunity for Middlebury College students to contribute to and connect with the local community,” she said “I know it changed the way I see Addison County and my role as a resident of not just our college campus, but of Vermont.”

Organizers believe Middlebury Foods will return someday, perhaps under a new business model. That model, according to Peters and Lee, should consider an affiliation with the college. Being an independent nonprofit has precluded the organization from tapping into college resources.

Lorraine Richards of West Addison has been a Middlebury Foods client for the past three years. She signed up because she wanted to support what she considered a laudable student effort that would supply her with foods she liked and would otherwise buy at the supermarket.

“Part of the enjoyment of ordering food through Middlebury Foods was the contact with the college students,” Richards said. “I’m going to miss that connection.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com

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