The Better Bennington Corp. is sponsoring a federally funded food co-op for downtown Bennington. At first glance, this sounded like a good idea. But with further scrutiny, this plan is shaky at best.
Won't this hurt existing businesses in or near our downtown that sell food? How can private small businesses compete with a federally funded co-op, which is estimated to receive free money to the tune of $350,000, which does not need to be paid back?
The owners of the Spice n' Nice store have been brave enough to express their concerns to our Select Board. At the next board meeting on Sept. 10, the board will discuss the subject again. This is the time the board should be asking some tough questions, because it is responsible. The Select Board cannot shirk its responsibilities in this matter. It controls the purse-strings of the BBC.
Other merchants I have talked to are also worried about the unfairness, with so much free money given to one entity. Some have told me that they don't mind a co-op or competition, but this is an unfair advantage. Competing with free money by the feds is the classic uneven playing field.
As anybody knows, once this $350,000 is used up, they can always go back to the well for more free money.
When I first heard about the details of this co-op and who is sponsoring it, I had to wonder what we are turning into here in Bennington. We will have one non-profit (the BBC) giving birth to another non-profit (the South Shire Food Co-op). What happened to the principles of the good old free enterprise system that our country and town were founded on?
What bothers me the most, and should bother all of us here in Bennington, is the fact that we have been labeled a "food desert" by the feds, in order to qualify for this grant. Why are our leaders allowing our town to be so falsely branded? This money wouldn't be available without such a negative designation. Are we not acting as tarts, all for free money from the feds? I thought the idea was to improve the image of Bennington.
What is a "food desert," you wonder? Here is the definition from the USDA. A "food desert" is "a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store."
That also requires the tract have either a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher or "a median family income at or below 80 percent of the area's median family income." To qualify, at least 500 persons and/or at least 33 percent of the tract's population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. For rural census tracts, the distance is more than 10 miles. How can the feds figure out that definition, but can't figure out when a community needs FEMA money?
Does this make any sense to you? If that's the case, then Pownal is a more likely candidate for the designation of "food desert." Bennington has Aldi's, Hannaford, Price Chopper, and Wal-Mart, not to mention our downtown local food suppliers -- Henry's, Willy's, Martin's Mini-Mart, and Spice n' Nice. We also have two days of farmers' markets on a weekly basis.
And if travel is a problem, as is identified by the USDA as a factor, we have Green Mountain Express that can take you from one corner of town to the other at a very low cost. Donna Baker and her Executive Board have worked very hard over the last few years to bring this service to Bennington, and even to expand service to 7 p.m., and has promised to expand if the community's needs increase.
I go back to the question -- where is the town's leadership in this community that would let this type of negative label stand without question just to get free money? Can our community pride be bought and sold this easily?
We aren't in a food desert -- we're in a leadership desert.
Mike Bethel lives in Bennington.