Will a Buffett-Funded Co-op in the Hudson Valley Boost Food Access or Lead to Gentrification? | Civil Eats

Will a Buffett-Funded Co-op in the Hudson Valley Boost Food Access or Lead to Gentrification?

As in many agricultural regions, the fresh food produced in New York’s Hudson Valley doesn’t always make it to all the area’s residents. In fact, in the small city of Kingston, New York, 90 miles north of Manhattan, many are locked out.

“We’re in the middle of this abundant farmland, and the majority of the residents of the city can’t really afford to purchase the local produce,” says Lyndsay von Miller, one of a group of concerned residents who came together to start a food co-op there in 2018. She says the group asked themselves: “Where are people actually accessing everything that’s growing around us, and is there anything we can do to answer that access issue?”

Von Miller is now the council vice president of the Kingston Food Co-op, which is aiming to open by late 2024.

Kingston, a small city of 24,000 that sits 90 miles north of Manhattan, has seen a tumultuous few years. After a period of economic depression, centered around the withdrawal of IBM in the mid-1990s, it has more recently become a focal point for migration to New York’s Hudson Valley. This population influx, driven largely by well-off transplants from New York City, exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, fueling a wave of gentrification and a crushing regional housing crisis. Kingston, in fact, saw some of the largest jumps in single-family home prices in the country during parts of 2021, second only to Boise, Idaho.

Kingston’s local food is a major draw. As von Miller points out, the city sits amid lush farmland, where a large number of vegetable farms, livestock operations, orchards, and other agricultural operations produce a bounty of fresh food, which is sold at two regular farmers’ markets and innumerable restaurants in the city, as well as at countless farmers’ markets and farm stands in surrounding towns.

Von Miller’s characterization of food inequity in the region is accurate: a 2012 SUNY New Paltz study of Ulster County, where Kingston is the county seat, determined that, “approximately three in every 20 Ulster County residents, and nearly one in five children, at times lack adequate food to meet basic nutritional needs.” A 2022 report confirms 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, especially amongst marginalized youth and communities.” The report states that 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 around food insecurity, broadening the fledgling organization’s vision, von Miller says. “We realized that there really was a much deeper access issue happening, and we were in a really good position, to be . . . the outward-facing distribution point for food in the city,” she says. They were soon asking, “How could we up our game beyond that traditional co-op model to provide that access?”

And yet, as the co-op refines its plans and builds its membership, questions linger about whether the new store will counteract the impacts of gentrification in Kingston or add to them. And the fact that it has received nearly all of its seed funding from the NoVo Foundation—a billion-dollar charitable foundation helmed by Peter Buffett (son of Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and the seventh-richest person in the world)—adds to those questions.

Developing the Cooperative Model

Data suggests that starting a food co-op is, on its face, a reasonable way to improve food access locally, while also boosting the local economy. Food co-ops tend to source more of their products locally—20 percent on average compared to 6 percent at conventional stores, according to the International Cooperative Alliance. They can also be community economic engines: 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, including many that are full time and with benefits—9.3 jobs per $1 million of sales versus 5.8 jobs in conventional grocery stores.

Over the last four years, the Kingston Food Co-op has worked to bring some of that energy to midtown Kingston, one of the most diverseand rapidly gentrifying—sections of the city. The store already has over 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 to 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 sign up at a higher level.)

All members can vote on the co-op leadership—when open, its board will consist of three seats elected by members, three seats elected by worker-owners, and three seats that elected council members appoint—and ultimately, if the store is successful, members will share in the co-op’s profits.

In keeping with their original vision, the store’s leadership has broadly prioritized a “social enterprise business plan” that takes into account “people, planet, profit, and purpose—emphasis on the purpose,” says Keyvious Avery, the current council president. In addition to planning traditional grocery store operations, Avery describes a process of “reaching out to the margins of our community to understand what sort of environment they want” as they build the store; this includes considering childcare and mutual aid programs to help more vulnerable community members, as well as more experimental economic approaches like income-based pricing, expanded EBT/SNAP benefits, and working with local partners to scale up the regional food system.

Some of this work falls to Siobhan DuPont, the outreach coordinator for the co-op’s community integration committee. “One of our goals is to equip our community integration 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 September “build your co-op event” that invited community members to meet with the architects designing the store in order solicit input for its design, and another similar meeting coming up later this fall.

DuPont also characterizes the committee as playing a broader, essentially educational role. “We are working to increase our community’s understanding of co-ops, the process to opening, the impact it will make on the community, and the ways to get involved,” she says.

The Role of NoVo

The Kingston Food Co-op’s effort to create a grassroots operation, with a focus on systemic equity, parallels other initiatives in the current wave of justice-focused co-op organizing, says JQ Hannah. Hannah is the assistant director of the Food Co-op Initiative, a small nonprofit that provides support for new food co-ops organizing across the country, and has worked with the team in Kingston.

But in one fundamental way, Hannah says, Kingston is unusual: the co-op is being almost entirely funded by the NoVo Foundation, an enormously wealthy philanthropic organization that also finances a wide range of nonprofits and community-oriented initiatives in Kingston and the surrounding region.

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NoVo itself is an unusual fixture in the city. The foundation—which was founded in 2006 and is entirely funded by a pledged grant of Berkshire Hathaway stock (initially worth $1 billion and doubled in 2012)—has invested more than $100 million in Kingston and the Mid-Hudson Valley over the last five years. (NoVo does spend nationally on progressive causes, but nowhere else does it provide such concentrated, localized spending.)

The value, thus far, of NoVo’s investment in the co-op is not totally clear; the store’s leadership declined to disclose funding specifics, only saying the co-op has received a capital grant and operations 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 consider an opaque and top-down approach.

Some of the criticism was memorably sketched out in a 2021 Tablet article that examined the foundation’s substantial influence on the city and region. It characterized the efforts of the foundation, and of Peter Buffett (who lives outside Kingston in Lomontville), as an almost apocalyptic approach to supporting a self-reliant local economy and food system in the face of climate change and potential systemic breakdown.

According to the article, “It’s the looming possibility of our collective destruction that Peter often cites as the reason he’s so focused on farming and food distribution in Kingston.” The article also raised questions about the long-term sustainability of NoVo’s investment in the area.

Martin Kirk, NoVo’s senior special projects coordinator, says the foundation’s financing for the co-op is consistent with its efforts to boost resilience in the local food system. “Midtown is currently a food desert, meaning healthy, diverse food is in short supply,” Kirk says. “The hope is that the food co-op, in partnership with others, can improve the quality of the food on offer, in a culturally competent way and at a price Midtown residents can afford.”

But will this work in practice? Von Miller acknowledges that tight food margins are difficult to counteract, and the leadership are well aware that a co-op in the heart of the city will attract Kingston’s newer and wealthier residents.

Some are skeptical that this approach will serve everyone in Kingston. “It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to give everybody what they want in the community—and I’m talking about impacted folks, people who live in midtown, business owners who are concerned about the co-op opening and what it may do to their small businesses, and folks who are part of the economy now who have moved from [New York City] or other places,” said one co-op member, familiar with the store’s operations and planning, who spoke to Civil Eats anonymously.

The member traced some of the co-op’s flaws to the disconnect between some long-term residents of the area and newer residents—“an influx of liberals . . . who are wanting to do their best to preserve the community that’s here without totally understanding the impact they have.”

Whether the co-op can successfully thread this needle remains to be seen—but they are, to be sure, in uncharted territory. “There’s absolutely nothing like it we’ve ever seen before,” says JQ Hannah, of the Food Co-op Initiative, describing the Kingston Food Co-op’s relationship with NoVo. “That is the most unique piece of Kingston’s project.”

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Hannah also points out that eschewing the traditional co-op financing model—which involves considerable time raising money from multiple sources, including members—can have drawbacks.

“Part of wrestling with [financing] creates . . . multiple levels of buy-in, from the people who become owners, to mid-level local funds, and to cities and city councils that may eventually come in with some tax rebates,” Hannah says. “It takes years to convince all these players that you know what you’re doing and this is worth doing, but it also builds this really strong net of support and understanding of the project. It’ll be interesting to see Kingston do this without going through those steps in the same way.”

Democratizing the Kingston Food System

Despite the unusual funding arrangement, Hannah characterizes the Kingston Food Co-op’s leadership as intentional, working hard to develop an organic relationship with the surrounding community. And funding source aside, many of the challenges Kingston is wrestling with are typical for new co-ops that open in under-resourced neighborhoods.

When the Seward Community Co-op opened its second Minneapolis store in a neighborhood that was home to predominantly residents of color, for instance, they also had to conscientiously navigate similar concerns around gentrification. The store’s leadership entered into a long process of engagement with the local Bryant community, and consequently made certain policy choices, focusing on hiring a diverse and locally based staff, offering discounted prices through their needs-based Nourish program, and instituting cultural competency training for leadership.

In breadth of vision—if not in funding model—Hannah compares the Kingston Food Co-op to another food co-op: Gem City Market, a recently established cooperative in Dayton, Ohio. As in Kingston, Gem City has also put forward a broad vision of community uplift, complementing their grocery store with a health clinic, teaching kitchen, and community meeting space.

Gem City co-founders Lela Klein and amaha sellassie say that food insecurity was, as in Kingston, a principal reason for creating the store. “At the time that we started, [Dayton] was second in the nation for food insecurity for youth, and I think that was a wakeup call,” says sellassie, also saying that they prefer the term “food apartheid,” coined by community organizer and urban farmer Karen Washington, to emphasize that a lack of access does not happen by accident. “If it’s manmade, then we can change it, we can reimagine it.”

Klein believes the funding source doesn’t have to shape the character of a co-op, pointing out that many organizations wrestle with similarly complicated relationships with funders. What she does emphasize is the value of substantive community organizing and engagement—really having the local community behind the project—in order to be successful. “I’ve been involved in organizing most of my life, as has amaha. I’ve never seen the kind of response we got” when starting this project, says Klein. “Organizers like Erica [Fields] and amaha brought this [food insecurity] issue to a boil before we came in with a solution. And so, once somebody was there with a realistic solution that felt really doable, people responded.”

Over the next two years, furthering that engagement will be crucial for the Kingston Food Co-op—to increasingly build community support, and to meaningfully resist gentrification as the city continues to change and the store moves toward opening.

The leadership team is already facing one serious challenge: in late summer, a small mutual aid organization that had been providing herbal and wellness services in a parking lot adjacent to the co-op, primarily for unhoused and low-income city residents, was issued a cease and desist order demanding that they leave the lot.

The group, called The People’s Cauldron (TPC)—which has also received $150,000 in NoVo Foundation funding—has directed their ire at NoVo, the owner of the parking lot, accusing the foundation of contributing to gentrification in midtown Kingston, and of pushing out unhoused residents who have traditionally gathered in the lot. (In comments to the Kingston-based Daily Freeman, a NoVo spokesperson referred to “complaints from residents, customers, and local businesses [and] allegations of dangerous activities, including harassment, violence, and drug use and sales” as reasons for the cease and desist order.)

But TPC has also pointed the finger at the co-op, accusing them of siding with NoVo, and of being complicit in the displacement of people who live around and seek services in the lot. “The NoVo Foundation . . . and Kingston Food Co-op all have claimed to prioritize those who are most marginalized,” the group wrote in an Instagram post, while also demanding the right to continue providing services without harassment. “However, through their actions since the purchase of the lot at 708-718 Broadway . . . it is clear that their values are not aligned with their actions, as they are refusing to listen to the needs of houseless people.”

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“We are devastated to see what the [Kingston Food Co-op] has become and pray that the leadership start unlearning so they can start making better choices,” TPC wrote in a more recent post.

At the co-op’s September open council meeting, several members also spoke out against displacement, accusing the co-op of failing to take a stand. “Right now . . . we are seeing council members that are making decisions that are not in line with the [co-op’s] values, which makes it really, really hard for us to trust that any decisions going forward are going to actually be in line with the values,” said one member identifying herself as Callie.

In early October, the co-op’s leadership team sent out a long response to members that read, “We are very much in the process of figuring out how to navigate this difficult situation with the owners and shared collaborators of the space.”

While the situation remains unresolved, Hannah points out that navigating these sorts of tensions is not uncommon for new food co-ops. But, she says, conflict can sometimes be a good thing, if it strengthens the democracy inherent in the effort. “Co-ops are a rare place where we have power in the community, so we will use our voice, and we will bring our concerns,” she says. “Co-ops, because they’re owned by us, they have to answer to us.”

Disclosure: The author has contributed to the River Newsroom since 2021, a Hudson Valley media outlet that received NoVo Foundation grant support in 2019. In 2021, the author performed at the O+ Festival, which is partially funded by NoVo.

Will Solomon is a journalist living in the Northeast US. His writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Earth Island Journal, CounterPunch, and other publications. Find him on Twitter @wsolol. Read more >

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