November 11th is Veterans’ Day, so it feels timely to send out a reminder to all who are recipients of Veterans Affairs Benefits. Possession of a valid VA Card is proof of eligibility for the Co-op’s Food For All Program. Food For All members enjoy a 10% discount on their groceries, co-op-sponsored member share purchases, free classes through our Sustainable Living Series, and all the benefits of Co-op member ownership. Next time you are in the Co-op, stop by and pick up a Food For All Brochure and find out what Food for All can do for you. Or, find out more HERE.
For many of us, choosing to buy healthy food is not just about preference but price. At the Co-op, there are many ways to shop affordably to bring home products you trust – check out Co-op Basics, and Co-op Deals, and shop our Bulk Department. But if purchasing healthy foods is still a challenge for your budget, Food For All is here to help.
Who is eligible for Food For All?
Food For All is a Member Assistance Program for participants in SNAP, WIC, and Home Heating Assistance, and for clients of CVOEO, HOPE, WomenSafe, and the Open Door Clinic. Currently, around 375 Households participate in this program. We are always hoping to grow this number!
What do you “get” from Food For All?
You get a 10% Discount on all purchases, every day (excludes alcohol, by law).
You become a Member-Owner of the Co-op – your $20 share is paid by MNFC, allowing you to build equity, accrue a patronage dividend, receive Member Deals, and have a voice in Co-op Elections.
Healthy Food Access…that’s the objective, right? Making better food available and affordable for more people. For us at Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, it is ever on our minds. We are always researching and reaching out to find the healthiest food and wellness products that are available. We are constantly seeking to push the envelope to offer competitive prices on what we feel are the healthiest food and wellness products available.
Healthy Food Access is what was most on our minds as representatives from our Co-op, Brattleboro Co-op, and The Co-op Food Stores flew to D.C. to attend the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health on September 23. We three were nominated as conference delegates by leadership at the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA). We were so grateful for this opportunity and hoped to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear and be heard in a national arena dedicated to fighting hunger and promoting healthy food access.
When we first received an invite to the Conference, there was a collective wave of elation. Then came a wave of concern – how could we best use this amazing opportunity to serve co-ops and our goals for improved healthy food access? Luckily, one concern rose quickly to the top of the pile for Middlebury Co-op – WIC accessibility.
The WIC (Women, Infants, Children) Program is defined by the Vermont Department of Health in this way:
WIC is the USDA Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. WIC provides food benefits, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, counseling, and programs for pregnant Vermonters, parents, and caregivers with children under 5.
There are many wonderful aspects of the WIC program, not the least of which is that it focuses on a specific subset of the population who is particularly vulnerable to the effects of food insecurity. At our Co-op, bringing the healthiest food possible to the population that qualifies for WIC is a priority. Expectant parents often find their way to Co-ops during this unique time in their lives, as their concern over personal health and well-being intensifies. Unfortunately, the current constraints of the WIC program make it impossible for some Co-ops to meet their needs.
The current WIC program is based on a list of foods deemed to be particularly beneficial for WIC recipients. At our Co-op (and at many others), we operate under a set of Buying Criteria – a kind of list of “dos and don’ts” that help us decide how “healthy” is defined for us (one very important criterion is that we focus on local and organic products). Unfortunately, some of the products on the WIC food list do not mesh with these criteria. Much of the list requires that participants look for specific brands and sizes to redeem WIC benefits. Some entire categories (like peanut butter and fruit juice) restrict access to any organic brand.
Brand and size restrictions are barriers to Healthy Food Access (as exemplified by the shortages of WIC-approved products like baby formula during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic). Concerning natural food Co-ops like ours, another aspect of the program presents a greater barrier. To participate in the WIC program as a retailer, a store MUST carry a certain number of products that fit into every category, including conventional products and sizes which are only available through a handful of brands, many of which are restricted by our buying criteria. Through this system, our co-op cannot accept WIC cards as payment for any products, even the ones on the list that we can carry on our shelves. In fact, as of the 2021-2023 WIC Product List, only a small handful of products are keeping us from being able to serve as a WIC participating store.
We brought this issue with us to the Conference on September 28th. When a colleague pointed out someone with a USDA nametag passing us, we literally leaped at the chance for a meeting, catching them none-too-gracefully by the shoulder! The shoulder belonged to Stacey Dean, Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. After a quick introduction, we asked who she thought would be the appropriate contact to speak with about WIC implementation issues, and very graciously, she replied, “well, me!”. She heard us out, took our contact information, and promised to contact our regional WIC office. We were left with the assurance that we would be hearing from them, and the promise that “although they may not immediately solve the problem, there will be a thoughtful and intelligent conversation aimed at working through the issue”.
We are so grateful to have been a part of this conference and to have had the ear of someone so clearly connected to our WIC conundrum. This year, at Middlebury Co-op, we plan, once again, to try to apply for our Co-op to be approved as a WIC participating retailer. And we’ll be waiting by the phone for that call from our regional WIC office.
Next time you’re waiting in the check-out line at the Co-op, let your eyes roam to the stretch of pale yellow wall above the street-facing windows. You may never have noticed the statement posted there: The Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op is dedicated to the health and well-being of the whole community, but it’s a statement that we return to continually, to help guide the decisions we make about how the Co-op grows.
For many of us, choosing to buy healthy food is not just about preference but price. At the Co-op, there are many ways to shop affordably to bring home products you trust – check out Co-op Basics, Co-op Deals, shop our Bulk Department, and use our Special Order system to get case discounts. But if purchasing healthy foods is still a challenge for your budget, Food For All is here to help.
Who is eligible for Food For All?
Food For All is a Member Assistance Program for participants in SNAP, WIC, and Home Heating Assistance, and for clients of CVOEO, HOPE, WomenSafe, and the Open Door Clinic. Currently, around 260 Households take advantage of this program. We are always hoping to grow this number!
What do you “get” from Food For All?
You get a 10% Discount on all purchases, every day (excludes alcohol, by law)
You become a Member-Owner of the Co-op – your $20 share is paid by MNFC, allowing you to build equity, accrue a patronage dividend and have a voice in Co-op Elections
All Food for All member benefits are shared with the people in your household (children, domestic partners, parents living with you, etc..)
How do you sign up?
Fill out an application online, or pick one up at the Co-op Customer Service Desk.
Show us your current EBT or WIC benefits card, your Home Heating Assistance statement, or your VA Benefits Card (we’ll make a copy when you come in).
Bring us a letter of eligibility from one of our partner organizations (CVOEO, HOPE, WomenSafe, Open Door Clinic, and Free and Reduced Lunch Programs). They’ll know what to do!
If you are not eligible for Food For All but know someone who might be, please spread the word. This Co-op belongs to its member-owners and its community…the WHOLE community. Help us serve you better.