Kari Bradley: Co-ops key to developing successful local food system

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Kari Bradley, who is the general manager of Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier.

One of Vermont’s great success stories over the past decade has been the growth of local foods. Recently, I had the opportunity to testify for the House Agriculture Committee regarding food co-ops and how we support our state’s local food system. They wanted to hear from a co-op, I believe, because of the recent great news in the 2018 Farm To Plate Annual Report: last year, $289 million, or 12.9 percent of Vermont’s food and beverage sales, were from local sources, an impressive increase from 5 percent in 2010. Moreover, 15 percent of the total came through Vermont’s food co-ops, which speaks to the significant role that co-ops play in our local food system.

Vermont currently has 15 food co-ops and startups operating 14 storefronts, including Hanover Co-op’s White River Junction store. Together, these co-ops had shared revenue of $127 million and sold an estimated $42.5 million in local products last year. Vermont food co-ops are growing in number (Morrisville), expanding in place (Putney and Middlebury), and opening second locations (City Market). We are also innovating, especially in the realms of prepared foods and healthy food access; data from 2017 shows four co-ops (including Hunger Mountain) gave over $280,000 in discounts to low-income shoppers, helping to make fresh, local food more accessible for people with limited incomes. Vermont food co-ops have demonstrated that local products can be a central piece of a successful retail brand in the hyper-competitive grocery industry.

Each of our co-ops has a team of buyers across a variety of product categories responsible for working with local producers. We advise new and prospective vendors, helping them bring their products to market, by sharing our experience with the details of customer preference, product quality, packaging, price points, promotion, distribution and more. We work with established producers to promote their products and plan for the next growing season. While we have many well-established vendor relationships, there continue to be growth opportunities. A great example is Joe’s Soups, which has grown from micro-batches for his CSA customers to regional distribution to retailers and restaurants over the past few years.

Our co-ops are also known for our collaborative approach. We partner with producer co-ops, regional distributors and each other to promote local. Since 2006, City Market, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, and Hunger Mountain have collaborated with Monument Farms of Weybridge to offer Vermont Co-op Milk. This relationship provides our stores with a consistent supply of a quality local product, often the lowest price in town; at the same time, Monument Farms has enjoyed consistent demand and price, welcome stability in the highly-volatile milk market.

One of my key points to the House Agriculture Committee was that food co-ops offer an important opportunity in further local food system development. Because local is baked into our businesses, more food co-ops means more local vendors will be able to make more of their products available to customers daily and year-round. Our latest success story is in Morrisville, where that community now has a small but thriving store with clear focus on local despite the presence of two big-box supermarkets. We are also supportive of the efforts of Granite City Grocery to open a store in Barre, where there will be a mix of products but local will play a role. There are opportunities to encourage even more co-op development if we can connect expertise and capital with communities seeking to own their own stores.

We also have to think regionally in order to support local. Many of the Vermont co-ops are members of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, which includes 35 food co-ops across New England and New York with 140,000 member-owners, 2,000 employees, $300 million in revenue, and selling $90 million in local products. Pooling our buying power, we work together on sourcing regional products like artisan cheeses and frozen vegetables to increase our impact for small producers across our region.

Here’s to another decade of progress for Vermont’s local food system, with food co-ops playing a central role, contributing to the benefit of all Vermonters.


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