Williamstown, Mass. – Williams College students Meg Richardson, Lucas Elek, Catharine Parker and Jessica Bernheim believe that solving food security issues requires more than a band-aid approach. As members of Kinetic, a student-run think tank where students learn how to move from theoretical conversation to meaningful action, they worked together throughout the 2013/2014 school year to develop an innovative, practical approach to food assistance. The students hope to shift people’s thinking about this issue while addressing the immediate concern of making healthy foods available to those who are food insecure. The students named their solution Suspended Groceries, after Suspended Coffees, the pay-it-forward phenomenon that started in Naples, Italy and has made its way stateside to cafes and coffee-shops from Maine to California. Suspended Groceries, now in place at Wild Oats Market in Williamstown, Mass. (the first grocery store in the region—maybe even the country—to implement it), allows shoppers to “suspend” one or more of several designated grocery items for another shopper to pick up later. A snapshot of items that have been on the Suspended Groceries list, chosen for their broad appeal and nutrient value, include: 1 carton of locally raised eggs from free-running chickens 1 32 oz. container of organic yogurt 1 package of organic baby carrots 1 10 oz. package of organic frozen fruit 1 lb. of organic rolled oats 1/2 gallon locally produced low-fat milk 1 cup of house-made soup Shoppers who wish to suspend an item for someone else can do so when they check out. They simply choose a coupon for the item they wish to suspend from the display at the register. The cashier adds it to their order and the item is “suspended” in the Wild Oats system. Wild Oats totals Suspended Grocery purchases on a regular basis, issues a coupon for each purchase and gives the coupons to the Berkshire Food Project in North Adams, Mass., and the Community Bible Church Food Pantry in Williamstown, Mass., to distribute. To pick up a suspended item, the coupon recipient visits the store, selects the food that matches the picture on the coupon and exchanges the coupon for the item at any register. Suspended Groceries is new, both to the Wild Oats community and in the way it approaches food support. When I asked the students what their “wildest dreams” for Suspended Groceries were, they said that they hoped the concept is adopted by more grocery stores in the area and across the nation, where ultimately Suspended Groceries exists in every grocery store in every community in partnership with that community’s local food pantry, food bank, or food support organization. Their hope is that Suspended Groceries helps to normalize food support, because, in the spirit of a note left by someone on the Suspended Coffees web site, “everyone needs a little help every now and then.”
From July 1, 2014-June 30, 2015 (the Fiscal Year), shoppers donated $3201 in Suspended Groceries coupons. The most popular item to be donated was 1 dozen eggs. Wild Oats Market is responsible for administering the program. Wild Oats Market also offers the Healthy Food for All Program, which gives shoppers who qualify a 10% discount on most items they purchase at the store. To qualify for the discount, the participant must apply for the program and show proof of participation in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or WIC (Women, Infants & Children Nutrition Service). HFA participants reapply to the program yearly. Application (and reapplication) is a quick and easy process. In Fiscal year 2014-2015, Wild Oats Market provided $9276 in discounts to participants of the HFA program. 126 individuals and families participated in the program in FY 2014-2015. Wild Oats Market, a cooperative business, has other programs in place to help food insecurity: In Fiscal Year 2014-2015 the co-op donated $1245 to the Williamstown Youth Center, by selling the Center healthy snacks at cost. In Fiscal Year 2014-2015 the co-op donated $6010 to the Take & Eat Program, which delivers meals to the elderly in the community.
Here is a copy of the Wild Oats Mission and Ends Policy in its entirety: While adhering to the Cooperative Principles*, Wild Oats Market exists to provide its members, customers, employees, and the community: E1 Environmentally responsible, healthful, local and fair trade products, food and meals at reasonable prices; E2 Information about food, nutrition, the environment, the cooperative business model, health, sustainable living, and wellness practices; E3 A stable, friendly, responsive business and employer. *The Cooperative Principles: 1. Voluntary and open membership 2. Democratic member control 3. Member economic participation 4. Autonomy and independence 5. Education, training and information 6. Cooperation among cooperatives 7. Concern for community Our outreach programs help us to meet our goals as a cooperative business and as a community business, by giving more people in our rural community access to healthy food at reasonable cost.
Outreach is an integral part of our business and always has been. The programs that I have outlined here are well-established (all but Suspended Groceries have been in place several years) and continue to serve the needs of our customers.
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