Food+Co-ops: Access to Good Food for All

The Basics program at Wild Oats Market. Photo by Bonnie Hudspeth The Basic Goods program at Wild Oats Market offers "the kitchen staples you use often for the best prices we can afford." Photo by Bonnie Hudspeth

Access to good food for all. Who can't get behind that idea? Turns out, once you start to walk down that road, you find a lot of complexities—factors that add up to a lack of access to good food by food insecure populations. That's what I hear from folks who are addressing this "wicked problem" on a daily basis. But note that they *are* addressing the problem. This month in Food+Co-ops, let's take a look at how. Pieces of the puzzle include consumer education, cost, and transportation.
  • How can we increase knowledge about where to find good food, how to prepare it, and where to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (aka food stamps, known in Vermont as 3SquaresVT)?
  • How can we make good food affordable, and also help people understand the ‘true cost of food’ and how it relates to prices charged by farmers and big box retailers?
  • How do folks get to and from the places where good food is available?
One strategy that you’ll see across the two leadership tales below is community partnerships. So let’s take a look at how NOFA-VT and an alliance within the New England cooperative economy are making strides each day toward this important and powerful goal. The Food Co-ops and Healthy Food Access Program  The Food Co-ops and Healthy Food Access Program is a partnership between the Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE), a 38-year old regional co-op oriented community loan fund, and the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA). NFCA is a network of 34 food co-ops and start-up initiatives that are working together toward a shared vision of a thriving regional economy, rooted in a healthy, just and sustainable food system and collaboration among co-ops. At NFCA’s Fall Member Gathering on September 7, more than 100 people from member food co-ops and 10 partner organizations focused their attention on the theme of how to ensure that food co-ops are accessible to low-income consumers. Hunger Free Vermont’s Faye Conte keynoted the gathering. She points 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 can help all Vermonters have access to healthy, affordable foods.” Hunger Free Vermont is partnering with NFCA and CFNE to help more co-ops create programs that increase healthy food access and help to end hunger, community by community. CFNE’s Micha Josephy outlined six leverage points for serving low-income communities through food co-ops:
  1. Community partnerships, in areas like outreach and program design
  2. Affordable ownership shares in the co-op
  3. Affordable products at the co-op
  4. Education opportunities, such as how to buy in bulk and purchase and prepare healthy, affordable options in the store
  5. Inclusive marketing, including in-store signage, advertising, and staff training
  6. Infrastructure, to address hurdles like transportation or language barriers
Rochdale Pioneers storefront Rochdale Pioneers storefront

Food co-ops are not starting from scratch when it comes to models for increasing access. In fact, the modern cooperative movement was founded in 19th-century England by the Rochdale Pioneers, who came together out of a common need for healthy food in the midst of industrialization and increased distance between producers and consumers. Sound familiar? The co-op movement has a long history of empowering working people to meet their needs through democratically controlled, member-owned businesses,” said Bonnie Hudspeth, Membership & Outreach Coordinator at NFCA. “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. It is very exciting to see the recent momentum of Neighboring Food Co-ops from across New England coming together and supporting each other to develop programs at their co-ops that will help make healthy, local food more accessible for all community members.” Models have been demonstrated for increasing access, including the "Food for All" program which provides a store-wide 10% discount for income-eligible members. The Food Co-ops and Healthy Food Access Program is designed to document such models and replicate them regionally. For more on these efforts, see this recent article from the national trade magazine for food co-ops. As an outcome of intentionally collaborating around healthy food access, NFCA, CFNE and Hunger Free VT have supported NFCA co-ops to do joint screenings of the 2013 film A Place at the Table—tying into a national hunger awareness campaign. Screenings include community dialogues on working to end hunger at the community level.

 NOFA-VT Programs Zero In on Access

Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) at Farmers’ Markets
EBT machine at Old North End farmers' market. EBT machine at Old North End farmers' market.

A core strategy NOFA-VT utilizes is increasing the access to local foods for users of existing programs like 3SquaresVT. A major project over the past few years has been establishing Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card readers in farmers' markets, allowing 3SquaresVT recipients to use their benefits to purchase food at the market. 45 farmers’ markets in Vermont currently accept EBT, out of approximately 70 total markets. Vermont is the home of a working group focused on EBT access at farmers’ markets. In addition to NOFA-VT and Hunger Free VT, this group includes the VT Department of Children and Families, University of Vermont Extension, and the VT Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. Faye Conte of Hunger Free VT highlights the importance of outreach, “With over half of the farmers’ markets in the state now accepting EBT, getting the word out about this great opportunity to 3SquaresVT recipients is key to ensuring the success of this program. With NOFA-VT and others on the EBT at Farmers’ Market Committee we have been working hard this season to expand the number of low-income shoppers visiting farmers markets.” Building on the success demonstrated with farmers’ markets, NOFA-VT is encouraging CSA farms and farm stands to accept EBT. When CSA shares are delivered to workplaces and communities, the barrier of needing to drive can often be removed. In Addison County, NOFA-VT is running a pilot program through which Farm Share recipients can pick up their food at a local school, addressing transportation issues. Harvest Health Coupons The Harvest Health Coupon program further expands the value of EBT benefits claimed at farmers’ markets by matching up to $10 per market day. Such double-value coupons are offered through similar programs around the country. In Vermont, funding support comes from Wholesome Wave, the USDA Rural Development Specialty Crop Block Grant program, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and the state of Vermont. Farm Share and Senior Farm Share Two more ways that NOFA-VT addresses access are the Farm Share and Senior Farm Share programs. The two programs reach 1,800 people per year with half-price (Farm Share) or free (Senior Farm Share) CSA shares. The Farm Share program not only benefits food-insecure Vermonters, it also supports farm viability. In 2011, these programs partnered with 41 farms, generating over $100,000 of farm income. For Farm Share, NOFA-VT raises funds to pay 25% of the share, and the farms raise 25% from their communities. The Senior Farm Share program works with senior housing sites to provide free shares worth $5-10/week, totaling $50 per share. Join the Team by Participating in Share the Harvest Farm Share is in its 19th year, and the number of applications has increased significantly in recent years; the program now receives more applications than it can fund. You can help - and enjoy a great meal at the same time! The primary fundraiser for the Farm Share program is NOFA-VT's annual Share the Harvest event. Through Share the Harvest, generous restaurants, co-ops, and food stores statewide donate a portion of their day’s sales to the Farm Share Program. Please consider joining this year’s Share the Harvest event by eating or shopping at participating establishments on Thursday, October 3rd. Click here for a list of participating businesses. In it for the long haul—together Each of these programs represents a long-term commitment to addressing the root causes of food insecurity. If you ask around the country what’s relevant about the Vermont food system, you will often hear that it shows what a community-based food system can accomplish. At the heart of such food systems is multi-organizational collaboration. The above examples highlight what’s possible when stakeholders team up to help make food insecurity a thing of the past. Eric DelucaFood+Co-ops is a monthly series curated by NOFA-VT member Eric DeLuca. Eric serves on the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Board and previously served on the Vermont Agriculture Innovation Center Board, which together have driven over $4M of investment in the Vermont working lands economy since 2010. Eric managed the International Year of Cooperatives for the US through the National Cooperative Business Association. He is currently partnering with UVM Continuing Education, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, NOFA-VT and other VT food system leaders to create the first higher ed certificate program focused on food hub management in the country. Eric is a candidate for the Board of Directors at City Market / Onion River Co-op and was previously Project Manager of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association.