BRATTLEBORO—Throughout the morning, the numbers written in grease pencil on the windshields of waiting cars ticked upwards: 365, 371, 387, 400.
By the end of the afternoon of May 27, the organizations distributing food to hungry Vermonters at Brattleboro Union High School estimated that they loaded 975 cars with “food kits” — boxes of emergency food to feed households from across Windham County.
As drivers waited for the distribution through the Farmers to Families program, the trail of cars started on South Main Street, wrapped up Sunny Acres, and then wound through the parking areas of BUHS. The line started early, with a resident on Sunny Acres noting that cars waiting outside her window as early at 7:30 a.m.
Organizers expected the lines for the food distribution event, the seventh in the state during the pandemic. An estimated 1,900 cars drove through the first event in Berlin on May 15.
Still, the sight of the cars waiting at Brattleboro’s distribution site provided a visual reminder of the toll that hunger takes in the state in general and, specifically, how COVID-19 has altered the incomes of even more families.
“The biggest thing is that it is available to everybody,” said Cassie Fraser, a marketing associate with The Abbey Group, a food-service management company based in Sheldon which oversees school food programs in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York.
Members of the Abbey Group, the Vermont National Guard, and the Vermont Foodbank managed the distribution. Town staff provided pre-planning support and traffic control.
“The way that the Foodbank was generous enough to distribute the food was that you don’t have to register, you just have to show up. We know it’s a little bit of a hassle to sit and wait, but if you can do it, the food is yours,” Fraser said.
Each of Farmers to Families food “kits” included 15 to 25 pounds of produce, 20 pounds of chicken, and 7.5 pounds of dairy products such as milk and butter.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also provided 2,976 boxes containing 28,800 non-perishable meals, according to the Vermont Foodbank.
A federal grant provided funding for the program. According to a press release from the Vermont Foodbank, in April the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a grant program aimed at supplying local food to families in need during COVID-19.
Several organizations submitted grant applications. The Abbey Group was one of three contractors approved by USDA.
The program connects local farmers, who prior to COVID-19 sold bulk food to restaurants and other institutions, to local contractors to purchase and distribute the food.
Fraser said the coordinators would stay in Brattleboro until all the food was claimed.
“It’s all perishable, so we want it to go,” she said.
Almost daily since May 15, the organizations have held Farmers to Families events across the state. The distribution days are expected to happen at least through June.
“Right now, the program is renewed until the end of June,” Fraser said. “The idea is to circle back around [to other towns] so that we’re getting to the whole state.”
She noted that fewer people have been attending the events.
The first, in Berlin, drew a huge turnout, she said. In hindsight, she said, a number of people thought at the time that it would be the only distribution opportunity. Now that the community understands Farmers to Families has a statewide, almost daily schedule, people have adapted to waiting for their local event, Fraser said.
“There are a lot of factors that play into it for sure,” she said. “But we started really high, and we’ve kind of dropped down a little bit lower.”
She added that the event couldn’t have realistically happened without the collaboration of the collaborators and several other organizations — such as GlobalFoundries, a computer chip manufacturer based in Burlington— that helped store the butter and cheese prior to distribution.
Mobile food distribution model
Staff Sergeant Daren C. Farnsworth is with the Vermont Army National Guard out of Berlin.
“In my 25 years, this tops it all,” he said.
According to Farnsworth, a mobile-food-distribution model is the easiest way to provide nourishment to as many people as possible.
“Setting up a system like this, we’re running people through in about four hours,” he said. “We’re doing 100 cars in 28 minutes.”
“The four hours that we’re here on the ground doing this takes up between 14 and 16 [hours] to execute,” he said. “And these young soldiers are working about 14 to 16 hours a day.”
Farnsworth’s unit brought 48 soldiers, while the Civil Air Patrol, the official volunteer auxiliary of the United States Air Force, supplied approximately six people.
Farnsworth said that number of people are the norm. He added that Brattleboro was among the top five distribution program sites to date.
He said that COVID-19 differs from other disasters to which he has responded, because, in his view, “Nothing like this has happened in this country before.”
“There is definably a need, we have to do this, this isn’t going to go away overnight,” said Farnsworth,who staffed the Farmers to Families distribution in Berlin. There, his team brought six trucks, with six trailers, and more than 10,000 meals. Food distribution started at 6:45 a.m. and ran out at 11:30 a.m. They waited five hours for another load.
“It’s not only physically demanding, but it’s mentally demanding, too,” he said. “Because we still had 400 cars in that line and we had to go and explain to those people that more food [would be] coming.”
This meant Farnsworth spent a lot of time walking from car to car delivering the news. That particular distribution event went until 11:30 that night, he said.
An interaction with one couple that day in Berlin has stayed with him.
In his estimation, they were in their late 70s and were so afraid of contracting COVID-19 that they hadn’t left their house in eight weeks. The couple told Farnsworth that they’d run out of food two days prior.
“That’s how much fear some of these people had in them,” he said. “They didn’t dare go to the grocery store, and this relieved them. I would say they would be considered middle class — they weren’t poor, they weren’t rich — but they needed it.”
“It’s helping your community, you’re filling in where other channels can’t and that’s what this is all about, we’re going to make sure everyone is fed today,” he said. “And we’re all in this together, okay? And we have to get through this,” he said.
“This is not going to go away overnight,” Farnsworth said. “It’s definitely not.”
Local support and compassion
Fire Chief Michael Bucossi said from the perspective of his department, the morning was going “really well.”
He said his department has worked with the state Agency of Transportation and the National Guard for the past week.
“All the plans were in place, and the municipal team worked well together,” he ssaid.
He said the department pulled in some extra staff to help with traffic control. Rescue Inc. also helped staff the event.
“We expected a lot of people, we did not expect this,” Bucossi said.
“This is truly something you would see on TV in a tornado-devastated area or a hurricane-devastated area,” he added. “This is certainly not an everyday event for Brattleboro, Vermont.”
Bucossi said the Brattleboro event benefited from lessons learned from experience, which in his tenure has included two block fires, a tropical storm, and now a pandemic.
For example, the department had come prepared with a battery jumper, jumper cables, and a few cans of gas.
“In my career, I’ve seen enough and this town has seen enough,” he said.
Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald praised the effort,
“I think they’re doing really well,” he said. “They’ve obviously done this before; they have a well-oiled system, traffic is moving quite nicely.”
Most of the community members waiting for food had helped out by following the traffic plan. But complications emerged when some people had decided to cut corners and sneak into line from side streets, he said.
As Fitzgerald spoke, a group of three men walked down Fairground Road toward the school pushing shopping carts, bypassing the cars in line. Perhaps they didn’t own cars, and so the shopping carts served as their means of transporting their kits.
But for the tired, hot, and frustrated drivers waiting in line, the optics were frustrating.
For a good chunk of the day, residents reported on social media that back streets were jammed, creating further frustration and complications. One person complained on the Brattleboro, Vermont public Facebook group that she was stuck at Canal Street and barred from driving via South Main Street to her home near Cotton Mill Hill, requiring a half-hour walk with an injury.
“I love what the state is doing.... I just wish they had a better solution for residents to be able to get to our homes,” she wrote.
Despite the difficulties and unanticipated demand, organizers said the program filled a demonstrated need at an unprecedented time.
In Fitzgerald’s opinion, previous disasters, such as 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene, hit people unevenly. Some escaped the catastrophe with their property unscathed. For those who weren’t so lucky, some people experienced minor flooding in their basements, while others lost their homes.
This pandemic has affected everybody, he said.
“There really weren’t too many people spared,” he said.
Yet, Fitzgerald believes this community-wide experience has an upside: more compassion.
People who have never needed to seek services did so for the first time during this pandemic, he said, creating “a new understanding of what it’s like [for others in need],” he said. “There’s more compassion for those who need to do this every day.”
A recent University of Vermont study estimated that food insecurity — defined by the USDA as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life” —rose 33 percent due to the impact of the coronavirus on the economy.
“This pandemic is creating a food-assistance emergency unlike anything we’ve ever seen since we opened our doors more than 30 years ago,” Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles said in a press release.
“We’ve seen increases of up to 800 percent in the number of people in need of food assistance, and it is clear that the Foodbank and our statewide network of food shelves and meal sites will not be able to meet that need on our own,” he warned.
As he watched National Guard soldiers load boxes of food into cars, Zach Hebert, the Foodbank’s gleaning and community outreach coordinator for the southern part of the state, said he has heard from multiple people participating at various Farmers to Families events that it was their first time needing to access emergency food.
It will be important, he said, to make sure that people who are either new to hunger, or to the emergency food system in general, continue to revive the supports they need, such as signing up for 3SquaresVT, the state implementation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The USDA program is commonly known as food stamps.
Hebert hopes that the pandemic will spur sustainable solutions so communities will not need to rely on events like Farmers to Families as the only way people can access emergency food.
“We want everyone to have options,” he said.