by Emilie Kornheiser
I joined the Co-op board last November with a single-minded devotion to expanding access to the Co-op for folks with lower incomes. When my son was young I fed the two of us from the Co-op on our food stamp budget and I wanted my community to understand that it was possible. What I hadn’t realized was that we already had an incredible array of programs that do that very thing, and a myriad of folks from across the economic spectrum that think of the Co-op as “their” grocery store.
The Co-op began its outreach work more than 20 years ago through Chris Ellis’ nutrition advocacy. You might know Chris from one of the many hats that she’s worn in our community over the years, and the fantastic history piece that she wrote in last month’s Food for Thought. This work has expanded to programs at each of the elementary and Headstart programs in the county. Along with Vicky Senni, Chris teaches hundreds of kids a year to love vegetables, cook from scratch, and play with their food. . . and by doing so the kids learn that the Co-op is theirs, available and accessible for their families. They learn about food justice, and the connectivity of our lives and choices with the planet and the humans that live on it. They plant garlic, make pizzas, pickle string beans, and bake cookies.
The outreach staff learned early on that they had to meet people where they are; for kids that place is school, for adults, it can be more complicated. Over the years we’ve had programs with SASH, Brattleboro Housing Partnership, The Canal Street Association, HCRS, Morningside Shelter, and the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center (now Groundworks Collaborative.) With each of these groups our incredible staff shared the incredible results of “from scratch” cooking—how to make the most of seasonal fresh vegetables and dried beans. Some folks call this practice “shopping the periphery,” meaning that you focus your shopping on fresh foods and bulk items, and ignore the packaged goods in the aisles. But cooking this way requires some supplies and skills. Our members have been so kind as to donate Crock-Pots when we asked for them. We use the Crock-Pots both as a prize for completing our classes but also as an incredible tool so that folks who are living in transition—whether in motel rooms, single-occupancy spaces, or just working more than full time, can feed themselves and their families.
Within the store we have struck a great balance with the Pennywise Pantry Tours, and the Food for All program. The Pennywise Pantry Tours walk folks through the store and show them how to make it theirs—grains, spices, sale produce—and how to make the most of limited shopping dollars. And the Food for All program offers membership discounts to any folks living on a limited income who take the time to sign up.
We don’t do all of this work in isolation. The Co-op does it because we recognize that we are part of our community and town, that we have a responsibility to be leaders both as equitable employers and as a just business. The BFC is a full partner in its community and neighborhood, participating in coalitions such as Promise Communities, the Hunger Council, Fit and Healthy Kids, Building Bright Futures, the Downtown Alliance, and more. At each of these meetings representatives from the Co-op serve as not just advocates for healthy, accessible food for all, but also as one of the largest employers in our community. In past years we’ve partnered with the Department of Labor and Extension Services to train youth in agricultural careers—we want to serve as examples of just business practices and to demonstrate the power of cooperatives.
I’ve just touched lightly on the incredible breadth and depth of how we are anchored in our community. Please, if you are interested, take the time to either learn more by getting in touch, or even better, get involved by doing outreach yourself on the power of food and community.