BRATTLEBORO—Tucked away in the back of the sprawling industrial building that used to house The Book Press, a story is unfolding that seems as fanciful as the Harry Potter books that once were printed there.
With four full-time staffers and an army of volunteers, the Vermont Foodbank’s Brattleboro warehouse distributes 2.3 million pounds of food each year to food shelves, community meal sites, shelters, senior centers, and after-school programs in Windham, Windsor, and Bennington counties.
This accounts for more than a quarter of the more than 8 million pounds of food that the Foodbank distributes statewide. It also has distribution centers in Rutland and Wolcott, in addition to the Foodbank headquarters in Barre.
Southern Region Director Maurice Casey said when the 21,000-square-foot facility opened in 2009, he thought that reaching the million-pound mark would be difficult.
“We have some really great people involved with this facility, and we would never be able to do what we do here without them,” he said.
That twice as much food as expected is being distributed is both a reflection of the hard work of so many people and a reflection of unprecedented demand.
According to the advocacy group Hunger Free Vermont, one in five children in Windham County is food-insecure, meaning that the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food is limited or uncertain.
Nearly half of all Windham County students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.
More than 8,300 Windham County residents participate in 3SquaresVT (Vermont’s name for the federal food stamp program), a 9 percent increase over 2011. They are among the one in six Vermont households to receive those benefits.
And more than 86,000 people in Vermont receive food from the 270-member agencies served by the Vermont Foodbank.
The effects of the 2007-08 recession still linger in Southern Vermont, and Casey said recent cutbacks in federal food assistance have put a greater strain on food shelves around the region.
That’s why the Foodbank welcomed a $26,700 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development (USDA RD) program on Dec. 6. The money will be used to upgrade shelving and make other improvements in the Brattleboro warehouse, as well as help pay for a new station wagon for hauling food and staffers around the region.
“It’s not our first grant to a food bank, and it certainly won’t be our last,” said USDA RD Vermont and New Hampshire State Director Ted Brady. “The Vermont Foodbank likes to say that every dollar it gets equals three meals, so our money can help them maximize their dollars and use them to fight hunger and enhance food security.”
The Brattleboro warehouse sees a steady stream of agencies coming to pick up food. As Casey led Brady and other USDA RD staffers on a tour of the facility, warehouse manager Chris Thayer helped Duane Greenawalt of HIS Pantry, the food shelf run by the Sacred Heart-St. Francis De Sales Catholic Church of Bennington, load up a box truck.
The Foodbank gets its food from grocery stores, food manufacturers and distributors, local farms, the USDA commodity programs, and the national food bank network Feeding America. It gets examined and sorted. Most of the food has yet to hit its expiration date.
Pallet-loads of packaged foods usually stay intact for larger orders. Loose items usually end up in a banana box — the coin of the realm of the so-called “dented food” stores — to be sent to food shelves.
Food shelves pay a nominal per pound “shared maintenance fee” for what they pick up. The Foodbank does make deliveries, but the small food shelves find it’s cheaper to do the transportation themselves.
“We could run a truck over here every week if we could,” said Greenawalt. “We like to come in ourselves so we can fill up the truck with the free stuff that they’re trying to get rid of.”
A pallet of five-pound bags of potatoes and a few 30-pound wheels of cheddar cheese get loaded in, along with coffee and tea, flour, and a few hundred banana boxes filled with assorted canned goods. Today’s freebies are raisin bran, tortilla chips, oatmeal breakfast bars, and some “heat-and-eat” microwave dinners.
“We can get 5,000 pounds on this truck,” Greenawalt said, and he filled every bit of the unrefrigerated cargo area with food that he hoped would last until the next trip to Brattleboro.
Casey said that while much of the food that is handled by the Foodbank is packaged, the trend of grocers around the country is to sell more perishable goods.
That means food banks have to be prepared to handle increased amounts of fresh and frozen meats, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables.
The Brattleboro warehouse has a large refrigerated storage area and an equally large freezer area to accommodate these foods. This has helped to diversify the foods that are made available to the Foodbank’s partners.
“It really been important to us,” Casey said. “We used to only have space in Barre to handle this much perishable food.”
Brady said that President Obama is working with the USDA to make fighting hunger a national priority.
“The president has talked about building a ladder of opportunity,” said Brady, “and the first rung on that ladder is getting food into people’s stomachs.”
“If people’s basic needs are met, then they can move up that ladder,” said Casey.