Will a Buffet-funded co-op in the Hudson Valley boost access to food or gentrification?
As with many agricultural regions, fresh food produced in New York’s Hudson Valley does not always reach everyone in the region. In fact, in the small town of Kingston, New York, 90 miles north of Manhattan, many are on lockdown.
“We’re in the middle of this bountiful farmland, and the majority of townspeople can’t really afford to buy the local produce,” says Lyndsay von Miller, one of the concerned locals who came together to start. a food co-op there in 2018. She says the group wondered, “Where do people actually access everything that grows around us, and is there anything we can do to solve this access problem?”
Von Miller is now the vice-chairman of the Kingston Food Co-op, which aims to open by the end of 2024.
“We realized that there really was a much deeper access issue… How could we improve our game beyond this traditional cooperative model to provide that access?”
Kingston, a small town of 24,000 people 90 miles north of Manhattan, has had a tumultuous few years. After a period of economic depression, centered on IBM’s withdrawal in the mid-1990s, it has more recently become a focal point for migration to New York’s Hudson Valley. This population influx, driven in large part by affluent New York transplants, has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, fueling a wave of gentrification and a crushing regional housing crisis. Kingston, in fact, has seen some of the largest single-family home price increases in the country for parts of 2021, second only to Boise, Idaho.
Kingston’s local food is a major draw. As von Miller points out, the town is set amidst lush farmland, where a large number of vegetable farms, ranches, orchards and other agricultural operations produce an abundance of fresh food, which is sold in two regular farmers’ markets and countless restaurants in the city, as well as countless farmers’ markets and farm stands in surrounding towns.
Von Miller’s characterization of food inequality in the region is accurate: A 2012 SUNY New Paltz study of Ulster County, where Kingston is the county seat, determined that “about three Ulster County residents Ulster in 20, and nearly one in five children, sometimes lack adequate food to meet basic nutritional needs. A 2022 report confirms that little has changed in a decade: ‘Ulster County is home to a thriving and diverse agricultural industry’, it reads, but ‘food insecurity persists in the county, particularly among young people and marginalized communities”. The report says 12 percent of the county, including 17 percent of its children, are food insecure.
The onset of the pandemic expanded the Kingston Food Co-op’s initial concerns about food insecurity, broadening the fledgling organization’s vision, von Miller says. “We realized there was really a much deeper access issue, and we were in a really good position to be . . . the outward-facing food distribution point in the city,” says- They were quick to ask, “How could we improve our game beyond this traditional co-op model to provide this access?”
And yet, as the co-op refines its plans and increases its membership, questions remain as to whether the new store will counteract the impacts of gentrification in Kingston or increase them. And the fact that he received almost all of his seed funding from the NoVo Foundation – a billion dollar charitable foundation headed by Peter Buffett (son of Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and seventh most world’s richest) – adds to these questions.
Developing the cooperative model
The data suggests that starting a food co-op is, on the face of it, a reasonable way to improve access to food locally, while boosting the local economy. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, food cooperatives tend to source more local products, 20% on average compared to 6% in conventional stores. They can also be community economic drivers: food co-ops generate more local economic activity than conventional grocery stores, with $16 million versus $13.6 million per $10 million in sales, and create more jobs, many of them full-time and with benefits – 9.3 jobs per million dollars in sales compared to 5.8 jobs in conventional grocery stores.
For the past four years, the Kingston Food Co-op has worked to bring some of that energy to downtown Kingston, one of the city’s most diverse and gentrifying neighborhoods. The store already has more than 1,200 members, a significant number in the city of 24,000. Lifetime co-op shares cost up to $150, and affordable “solidarity shares” are available for low-income residents and BIPOC residents (regardless of income), for $15 or less. (As part of its tiered income structure, the co-op encourages those who can afford it to enroll at a higher tier.)
All members can vote for the leadership of the cooperative – when open, its board will consist of three member-elected seats, three worker-owner seats and three member-elected seats of the council – and ultimately, if the store is successful, the members will share in the profits of the cooperative.
In keeping with their original vision, store management has largely prioritized a “Social Enterprise Business Plan” that takes into account “People, Planet, Profit and Purpose – the focus on the goal,” says Keyvious Avery, the current chairman of the board. In addition to planning for traditional grocery store operations, Avery describes a process of “reaching out to the margins of our community to understand what kind of environment they want” when building the store; this includes looking at childcare and mutual aid programs to help the most vulnerable members of the community, as well as more experimental economic approaches such as income-based pricing, extending EBT benefits / SNAP and collaboration with local partners to develop the regional food system.
Part of that work falls to Siobhan DuPont, the co-op’s Community Living Committee Relations Coordinator. “One of our goals is to empower our community-embedded members to be ambassadors for the co-op at community functions and events that we plan and host,” says DuPont. For example, she mentions a “Build Your Co-op” event in September that invited community members to meet with the architects designing the store to solicit input for its design, and another similar meeting to come later this fall.
DuPont also characterizes the committee as playing a broader, primarily educational role. “We strive to increase our community’s understanding of co-ops, the process of opening, the impact it will have on the community and ways to get involved,” she says.
The role of NoVo
According to JQ Hannah, Kingston Food Co-op’s efforts to create a local operation focused on systemic equity parallel other initiatives in the current wave of justice-focused co-op organizing. Hannah is Deputy Director of the Food Co-op Initiative, a small non-profit that supports the organization of new food co-ops across the country, and has worked with the Kingston team.
But in a fundamental way, says Hannah, Kingston is unusual: The co-op is almost entirely funded by the NoVo Foundation, a hugely wealthy philanthropic organization that also funds a wide range of nonprofit and community initiatives in Kingston and the surrounding areas. surroundings. Region.
NoVo itself is an unusual feature in the city. The foundation – which was founded in 2006 and is fully funded by a promised grant of Berkshire Hathaway shares (initially worth $1 billion and doubled in 2012) – has invested more than $100 million in Kingston and in the mid-Hudson Valley over the past five years. . (NoVo spends nationally on progressive causes, but nowhere else does it provide such focused and localized spending.)
The value, so far, of NoVo’s investment in the cooperative is not entirely clear; store management declined to disclose details of the funding, saying only that the co-op had received a capital grant and an operating grant from the foundation. NoVo’s most recent public 990, from 2019, shows a $200,000 donation to the co-op, though its overall contribution is presumably higher.
Locally, NoVo has attracted both support for its willingness to fund worthy causes – including a new health center, the local YMCA, and even a small UBI initiative, among many others – and intense criticism for what some see it as an opaque, top-down approach. .