BRATTLEBORO—It’s been nearly two decades since Larry Smith and George Haynes started a holiday food drive to help needy residents in Windham County.
That initial effort in 1994 by Smith, then the news director of WTSA, and Haynes, then the president of Brattleboro Savings & Loan, has grown into Project Feed the Thousands, the largest annual food drive in the region.
And, unfortunately, the food drive has had to keep growing over the past two decades as the problem of hunger in Windham County has kept growing.
In 1994, remembers current WTSA news director Tim Johnson, it seemed like a stretch to fill a trailer truck full of food for the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center.
Project Feed the Thousand, as it was known then, met 80 percent of its goal that first year. “They filled up about half-a-trailer truck, which was sitting behind Brattleboro Savings & Loan,” Johnson said Monday. “It didn’t take long for the name to gain an ‘s.’”
Now, Project Feed collects more food, and cash donations, than ever. Last year, it surpassed its goal by filling more than 27 trailer trucks with food, and raising more than $130,000.
And the food shelves now involved with Project Feed have expanded to Our Place Drop-In Center in Bellows Falls, the Townshend Food Shelf, the Deerfield Valley Food Pantry, the Guilford Food Pantry, the Chester/Andover Family Center, and the welfare office in Hinsdale, N.H.
This year’s goal is to raise $100,000 in cash donations, and to collect more than 25 trailer trucks of food — the equivalent of 600,000 meals.
And the schools, businesses, and community members who participate in Project Feed are determined not to let the hungry down.
Smith and Haynes handed off the leadership of Project Feed last year to Kelli Corbeil, owner and general manager of WTSA Radio, and Jeffrey Morse, president of River Valley Credit Union.
“It was a real honor for Larry to ask me to take over for him,” Corbeil said Monday. “This radio station has always been behind Project Feed.”
But this year’s campaign will be missing one of its driving forces — Melinda Bussino, the founder and executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, who died earlier this year.
Lucie Fortier, who succeeded Bussino, said her memory will be kept alive in various ways during this campaign.
At Brattleboro Union High School, Fortier said, students have created “Bussino Baskets” in which they will collect fruit from the cafeteria each day to bring to the Drop In Center.
And the roster of schools participating now includes all of Brattleboro’s elementary schools, as well as Dummerston, Vernon, St. Michael’s, and Hinsdale, N.H. They join BUHS, the Brattleboro Area Middle School, and Leland & Gray Union High School.
Fortier said that the hunger problem in the region keeps growing with every year. According to the fundraising letter that Project Feed sent out last week, one in five Windham County residents faces hunger and 43 percent of Windham County’s school students are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals — 56 percent in Brattleboro alone.
The Brattleboro Area Drop In Center alone fed 19,362 individuals (16,519 adults and 3,113 children) last year, and 7,217 Windham County residents receive food stamps, a 7-percent increase from 2011.
That’s why Project Feed has become so important to the Drop In Center.
“It’s our biggest fundraiser after the Empty Bowls dinner,” said Fortier. “Without it, we wouldn’t have a food shelf.”
Fortier said it’s even more important this year because the Vermont Foodbank, which supplies soup kitchens and food shelves across the state, is low on food because of disruptions to the organization’s supply channels after Hurricane Sandy.
“They’re out of free food to give out, and they’re short on money to buy more food,” she said.
Corbeil said C&S Wholesale Grocers has been a big part of Project Feed over the years, and this year is no different.
C&S delivered its first trailer-load of food of the drive to the Brattleboro warehouse of the Vermont Foodbank on Monday.
“That’s 41,000 meals right there,” Corbeil said.
Other local businesses, such as Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee, and civic groups, such as the Brattleboro Sunrise Rotary, are also key supporters with both money and volunteer help.
“I’m always amazed at how the community responds,” said Fortier. “I know there are people who used to give us more who can’t give as much this year because of the economy, but they still give.”
Non-perishable food and personal-care items may be dropped off at any of the local food shelves, as well as at local supermarkets and businesses participating in the food drive.
Fortier said the following items are always needed: tuna, pasta and sauce, peanut butter, soups and crackers, rice, canned meals, canned fruits and vegetables, baby food, juices, cereals and other nonperishable food, feminine hygiene supplies, and diapers and formula.
Cash donations may be left at any branch of River Valley Credit Union or mailed to Project Feed the Thousands, in care of River Valley Credit Union, P.O. Box 8366, Brattleboro, VT 05304-8366.
Online donations are accepted at www.feedthethousands.org/donate.
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