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Will a Buffet-Funded Co-op in the Hudson Valley Boost Food Access or 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.

“We realized that there really was a much deeper access issue happening … How could we up our game beyond that traditional co-op model to provide that access?”

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.

The Kingston Food Co-op now has more than 1,200 members. (Photo credit: Greg Gondek)

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.

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.)

Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett, and Susie Buffett attend 'Becoming Warren Buffett' World Premiere at The Museum of Modern Art on January 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Peter Buffett (left)—pictured with his father, Warren Buffett, and sister, Susie Buffett—attends the world premiere of “Becoming Warren Buffett” at The Museum of Modern Art on January 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

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.

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