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Putney Foodshelf outgrows space, needs new home

Volunteers see surge in use of program

The Putney Foodshelf, located at the Putney Community Center at 10 Christian Square (side entrance), offers free food to all who need it every Tuesday from 6 to 7 p.m. and every Saturday from 9 to 10 a.m. Doors open 15 minutes before shopping hours begin. To learn more about the Foodshelf, or to donate funds or goods, visit www.putneyfoodshelf.org, email them at putneyfoodshelf@gmail.com, or call them at 802-387-8551. Send checks to the Putney Foodshelf, P.O. Box 337, Putney, VT 05346.

PUTNEY—In 2017, the Putney Foodshelf gave 82,797 pounds of food to 3,327 households.

Those numbers are up from the year before, when they served 57,829 pounds of food to 2,654 households.

And it all happened — storage, sorting, and distribution — in 234 square feet of space in the Putney Community Center at 10 Christian Square.

The need is growing and the facility must do the same.

“It’s been true for awhile,” said Nancy Olson, chair of the Putney Foodshelf Board of Directors.

The challenge is how, and where.

The nonprofit Foodshelf offers fresh food — produce, dairy, and meat — as well as shelf-stable staples and toiletries, to anyone who needs it, regardless of whether they live in Putney.

The facility is open twice a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays, year-round, even during bad weather and holidays.

“Some of us live nearby,” Olson said, “so somebody can always make it here.” The facility has about 35 volunteers and an active board of directors.

According to Putney Foodshelf data, in 2017, of the 6,374 individuals who patronized the facility, 2,048 were children, 903 were disabled adults, 996 were employed, and 753 households received food stamps.

On Tuesday evenings, an average of 15 to 20 people shop at the Foodshelf, Olson said. Saturday mornings are busier, with 30 to 35 typically attending, “but we’ve seen up to 38,” she said.

Olson said in recent weeks there’s been a distinct uptick in the number of new people using the Foodshelf.

This presents a challenge for operations. When attendees shop at the Foodshelf, only one or two people can enter the room at a time. With a volunteer or two assisting the shoppers, it can be tough to navigate the 144 square feet of floor space, especially if the guests are in a wheelchair or have children in tow.

In that small area there is some room for storage. An additional 90-square-foot room provides a little more storage space. But it’s far from enough.

Olson explained that she’ll often get a call from one of the Foodshelf’s regular donors, like the Vermont Foodbank, with an offer of something useful, such as multiple boxes of canned soup.

“If we had room, we could, say, store five cartons, but we can only take one carton,” she said, because there’s nowhere to store the rest. And those offers don’t last forever — if the Foodshelf doesn’t take all five cartons, another food pantry will gladly receive and distribute it.

In addition to receiving regular donations from the Vermont Foodbank, the Putney Foodshelf gets grants and food from dozens of businesses and individual donors, including fresh produce from six Putney area schools, eight Putney area farms, and numerous local gardeners.

Items come in directly year-round, and through special food drives such as Top the Truck and Stuff the Bus.

“We’re grateful for the tremendous support we get from the community for the Foodshelf,” Olson said. “It’s gratifying."

Last month, Olson sent a letter to Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard and to the Selectboard to ask about relocating the Foodshelf to the upstairs room in the fire station.

“The upstairs is vacant, and nothing has really happened up there,” since the station was built in 2006, she said.

The fire station’s second floor is a viable option, Olson said, because the building’s elevator makes it accessible, there’s plenty of free parking, and there’s room to set up permanent storage, refrigerators and freezers, and a shopping and waiting area.

The one challenge is that although the town owns the building, the state owns the property, and there may be restrictions in the lease.

After Olson sent the letter to Goddard and the Selectboard, she and Foodshelf Coordinator Hannah Pick met with some members of the Community Center’s board of directors to begin figuring out if the center can better accommodate the facility.

“They are very interested in us staying there,” said Olson, who added, “we’re trying to work it out.” She noted that because the Community Center is a registered historical building, there are restrictions on modifying the structure.

The search is in “the very beginning stages,” Olson said, and there are no immediate plans — or any definite plans — to move.

“We don’t necessarily want to leave the Community Center,” she said. “They’ve been great landlords. They’re helpful and cooperative. But we need more space. It’s really cramped there."

“Ideally, we wouldn’t need to be in business — that’s the ultimate goal,” Olson said, “but, the need is there. The numbers of people using the Foodshelf are increasing."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #474 (Wednesday, August 29, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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