Co-op Support Boosts Innovation and Tasty Food at Food Pantry

CEFS staff Sophia Morton, Kathleen Wall and Rob Meehan in CEFS's kitchen used for the Community Kitchen Academy. Photo credit: Ben Sarle

Every December, my kids and I go shopping for the local food pantry. They pool their allowance money, I add earnings from teaching yoga, and we download a list of the food pantry’s top needs. With a calculator in hand, we challenge ourselves to get as much as possible. It’s always fun to pile our goods on the food pantry’s scale and watch the number grow bigger.

While I am always happy to make this humble contribution, I pause each year when I look over the food pantry’s shelves. They’re usually brimming—especially when we’re there so near the holidays—but the offerings strike me as bland. Homogenous rows of canned vegetables sit next to boxes of plain cereal and jars of brand name peanut butter.

What would it be like to enter a food pantry and find a deli cooler with ready-made salads and sandwiches or bulk bins with brown rice and quinoa? Thanks to its partnership with the City Market/Onion River Co-op, the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington, Vermont, is able to offer the 11,000 people it serves a variety that goes well beyond canned beans.

The partnership is a long-standing one, dating back to when City Market moved into its current downtown location in 2001, leasing land from the city. “The city wanted to be sure we met everyone’s needs, so we came up with the ‘Super Market Principles,’” explains Allison Weinhagen, Director of Member Services for City Market. Chief among these agreements was a donation that the co-op would make to the Food Shelf.

Although City Market has well exceeded its initial philanthropic promise, it continues to donate to the Food Shelf in multiple ways. “We keep a poster at every checkout stand encouraging people to donate,” says Weinhagen. They change the posters regularly so that people stay attuned to the message, and coupons velcroed to the checkout stands allow patrons to give easily and often. Combined with donation bins at the co-op's front entrance, customers donated more than $50,000 last fiscal year. That's in addition to the $10,000 the co-op gives, half in the form of store credit.

This level of support helps the Food Shelf’s staff to innovate and provide services outside the realm of the usual food pantry. They deliver hot meals to people with mobility issues, maintain a vegetable garden, run a job-training program, and have coolers stocked with ready-made items.

A volunteer stocks CEFS's cooler with freshly cooked baked ziti.
Photo credit: Ben Sarle

“The items in the coolers fly off the shelves,” says Food Shelf director Rob Meehan, who adds that they serve between 300 and 600 people a week. Recent grab-and-go’s have included healthy macaroni and cheese, Shepherds Pie, and apple crisp—all produced on site by the Food Shelf’s culinary training program.

The Food Shelf’s clients are among the most vulnerable in the Burlington community, including seniors, children, veterans, people with disabilities, and recent immigrants. “We’re involved with a myriad of poverty issues,” says Meehan.

Making sure that food is available to those in need is certainly the most pressing work of any food pantry, but the Food Shelf has worked hard to offer a wide variety of foods, as well. “We only purchase heart healthy foods and listen to the needs of people who are gluten-free or who have other special dietary needs,” says Meehan.

One of the Food Shelf’s programs—run in conjunction with the Vermont Foodbank—adds especially to the variety of their offerings while also providing transformative training opportunities. The Community Kitchen Academy teaches food safety and preparation skills to people who are underemployed or unemployed. Workers with the program make a daily run to City Market, rescuing highly perishable foods and utilizing a line of credit donated annually by City Market.

In addition to food, the program has benefited from equipment donations by City Market. Steam tables, walk-in coolers, display coolers, and culinary tools all ground the program in a higher-level of professionalism.

“It’s a very holistic program,” says Meehan, “because the people who are going through it—most of whom rely on our services—now are feeding others.” The employment rate for graduates is high, including a man who started a gluten-free bakery and a single mom who now oversees a National Guard camp.

“Local partners like City Market provide more than food and equipment,” says Meehan. “It’s a shared vision to make our community stronger.”