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Helping the hungry

As events marking Hunger Action Month approach, a grateful Foodshelf notes ongoing and acute need

The Putney Foodshelf is open every Tuesday from 6 to 7 p.m., and every Saturday from 9 to 10 a.m., at the Putney Community Center on Christian Square. Anyone from anywhere in need of food is welcome, say Foodshelf organizers.

PUTNEY—“We’re trying to dispel some misconceptions about people who use the Foodshelf,” and inform the public about “the extent of hunger in Putney,” said Putney Foodshelf volunteer Janice Baldwin about the organization’s two-day series of events for Hunger Action Month, an annual September national initiative.

The first, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Putney Foodshelf but Never Asked: A Kick-Off to Top the Truck,” is at the Putney Library on Tuesday, Sept. 27, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

The purpose of the library event, according to the news release, is to “invite conversation ... about hunger in the Putney community and what the Putney Foodshelf does to meet the needs of hungry people."

“Top the Truck” is the next day, Sept. 28, and it’s all day. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the public is invited to visit a truck parked next to the Next Stage Arts building on Kimball Hill and “fill the truck to the brim with bags of healthful, non-perishable foods,” according to a news release.

By presenting these events and getting the community involved, organizers want to create “a more comfortable environment” for Foodshelf clients and erase some of the stigma attached to those who need help, Baldwin said.

According to information provided by the Foodshelf, the entity served more than 6,310 people last year, with about 70 percent of them living in Putney. The remainder mostly come from Brattleboro, Westminster West, and Dummerston, Baldwin said.

Library event

The organizers describe the library’s Foodshelf event as informative and interactive.

It begins with mingling and munching. “We’ll have healthy snacks comparable to food available at the foodshelf,” Baldwin said, offering cheese, crackers, kale chips, and apples as a few examples.

The event includes a screening of local photographer Evie Lovett’s documentary on the foodshelf. She will speak about the Hunger Story Circle Project she is compiling with the Vermont Foodbank and the Vermont Folklife Center.

Baldwin said all subjects of the film gave Lovett their permission to appear in the film; those who requested anonymity will have written statements read at the event.

“There will be real, hard words about people’s experiences,” Baldwin said.

Presentations and panel discussions on hunger in the community and how to alleviate it are also on the agenda. Baldwin said she approached a few Foodshelf clients to attend as audience members or panel speakers.

“We hope they come,” she said.

Although organizers welcome more volunteers, Baldwin said the library event’s goal “is not to get more volunteers; it’s to educate people about the Foodshelf” and provide ideas for many actions, large and small, that can help the hungry.

“We’ll provide ways for people to help at no cost to them, and that don’t involve volunteering. Our goal is to mobilize people,” she said.

One suggestion organizers will talk about at the event is signing up with the Smile program, which donates a portion of an online order to a specific charity, such as the Foodshelf.

Another is gleaning. A representative from the Vermont Foodbank will talk about the gleaning program, where volunteers go to local farms and pick excess or “seconds” fruits and vegetables.

“Volunteers have gleaned hundreds of pounds of food for the Foodbank,” Baldwin said. The Foodbank sends some of that produce to the Foodshelf.

“The other day, Walker Farm donated more than 100 pounds of fresh tomatoes,” she said, noting other growers — Bunker Farm, Crooked Fence Farm, Green Mountain Orchard, Harlow’s Farm, High Meadow Farm, Jillson Farm, Lost Barn Farm, the Putney Community Garden, Sweet Tree Farm, and Walnut Ridge Farm — also supply fresh food at no cost to the Foodshelf.

“We have local people who drop off 20 to 30 pounds of fresh produce at a time,” Baldwin said. “We are really lucky. The surrounding community is really generous to our clients, whether they are professional farmers or not."

Top the Truck

Members of the community, including business owners, students, and individuals, make the Top the Truck event successful, Baldwin said.

Soundview, the paper plant in the center of Putney, is also a “big supporter” of the foodshelf, Baldwin said, noting they donate the vehicle used for Top the Truck, and “they help with the heavy lifting."

Basketville and the Putney General Store and Pharmacy are other local corporate supporters.

Students from Landmark, The Putney School, and the Greenwood School volunteer to help load the truck, often through the curbside pickup program at Top the Truck, where donors can pull over and hand over their bags of food.

The top items that Foodshelf organizers ask the public to donate are canned goods (tuna, vegetables, fruit, soup), peanut butter, pasta, rice, pasta sauce, beans, and cereal.

About the Foodshelf

According to information supplied by Board President Susan Kochinskas, the Putney Foodshelf was founded by the Genesis Church of the Brethren about 10 years ago and run by Nora Zellmer until the church folded.

Matt Wright and Gino Palmieri, members of Friends Meeting, kept it going until 2010, when a Putney Transition forum on food shelves inspired a group of new volunteers to develop an infrastructure and take over.

The Foodshelf attained nonprofit status in 2014. Although Putney Family Services directs clients to the Foodshelf, it is an independent entity.

“Many people don’t realize it takes 27 hours of volunteer time to have the Foodshelf open for two hours” each week, Baldwin said, explaining the behind-the-scenes work volunteers do — sorting donations, disposing of spoiled food, bringing items to and from the Vermont Foodbank — to keep the Foodshelf well-stocked with good-quality food.

As demand grew, Foodshelf hired its first-ever employee, Hannah Pick, as part-time volunteer coordinator in early September.

The Putney Foodshelf is “committed as much as we can to healthy food. There’s no soda or other junk-food items,” Baldwin said. “Our clients get milk, eggs, and meat every time they come ... and there’s the panoply of fresh produce.”

In addition to providing fresh, healthy food, the foodshelf offers regular cooking demonstrations, Baldwin said, which use some of the produce available that day.

Client anonymity is also part of the Putney Foodshelf’s culture, Baldwin said. While some other foodshelves ask for clients’ names, at Putney, “we don’t ask for names, just zip codes for use in grant applications."

Through the Hunger Action Month events, the Putney Foodshelf organizers “hope to give an understanding of the range of people who come [to the Foodshelf],” she said.

“While it’s important to put this in the context of hunger nationwide, that can seem distant and overwhelming. We hope that focusing on our foodshelf will bring the significance home to people and stimulate them to take a small action to make a difference locally,” Baldwin said.

The people using the foodshelf “are your neighbors,” she said. “They are the clerk who helps you at the store, your colleagues at work, people you see all the time."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #375 (Wednesday, September 21, 2016). This story appeared on page C4.

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