BRATTLEBORO — When I co-founded Project Feed the Thousands 26 years ago, I never imagined that our mission would be so incredibly necessary all these years later - that the need would have increased so exponentially - or that we would be supporting nine area food shelves and community meal programs.
This year, I sought to visit all of the food shelves that Project Feed the Thousands supports, and to write about them so that we can all have a better understanding of the food-insecurity challenges that many people in our community face.
This is the second in a series of three such profiles of these local food shelves and the vital role they have in the lives of our friends and neighbors.
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• St. Brigid's Kitchen - This past week, my wife, Rose, and I visited three additional food shelves, beginning with St. Brigid's Kitchen, housed in the former convent for St. Michael's Parish on Walnut Street in Brattleboro.
St. Brigid's well-equipped kitchen, which underwent a major renovation in February, was abuzz with several volunteers busily preparing lunch, and we were immediately overwhelmed by the heavenly scent of homemade chicken noodle soup warming on the stove.
On the day of our visit, the volunteers were also serving homemade macaroni and cheese, tossed green salad, and numerous desserts that are regularly donated by a local grocery store. It was obvious to me that these lovely people took great pride in preparing meals that are not only fresh and nutritious, but also delicious.
An average of 50 people - some homeless, but mostly seniors who live downtown - come for lunch each day, but many others pick up to-go orders. Nothing goes to waste, as any leftovers are packaged up and sent home.
We arrived half an hour before serving time, yet several people had already gathered. The front room was laid out with numerous tables and chairs, and as more people arrived, it became obvious to me that they had developed their own little community, having gotten to know one another from their many congregate meals together.
Carolyn Pieciak, who has been with St. Brigid's Kitchen since its inception in 1982 and describes herself as a volunteer director, told us that Project Feed the Thousands has played a vital role in helping them continue with their critical mission of feeding those less fortunate than others.
St. Brigid's Kitchen serves lunch Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., with a food shelf open on the last Sunday of each month.
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Putney Foodshelf - We also visited with Hannah Pick, executive director of the Putney Foodshelf, located at the Putney Community Center, 10 Christian Square, in Putney.
Since its grassroots beginning in 2006, the food shelf has gone from providing supplemental food for a handful of families to regularly serving more than 60 families weekly.
The well-stocked food pantry was small but organized, and the Foodshelf's three full-size refrigerator/freezers were all stocked with donated meat and dairy products.
Most of the food is donated from local stores, including the Putney Food Co-op and the Putney General Store, but the Foodshelf also relies on cash to purchase food from the Vermont Foodbank.
The Putney Foodshelf is open Tuesdays from 6 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 to 10 a.m.
In addition to the food pantry, the Foodshelf supports its Food4Kids program at the Putney Central School.
Open every Thursday for the majority of the school day and also running during the summer, Food4Kids serves an average of 155 students, preschool through grade 8, each week out of a student population of 200 or so. Children come in, one class at a time, to select nutritious items ranging from breakfast and dinner foods to snacks.
Hannah told me that some of these children take great pride in bringing home food to help support their families. She shared with me that she has heard these students saying things like “My dad likes to bring this to work” or “My mom likes oatmeal for breakfast.”
Project Feed the Thousands helps support both of these programs, mostly by providing cash for supplemental food purchases.
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Our Place Drop In Center - Our last stop for the week was at Our Place Drop In Center in Bellows Falls, where we met with Lisa Pitcher, who has served as executive director for the past nine years.
Our Place uses every inch of space available in its facility on Island Street. Serving the community for more than 25 years, the community meal site serves breakfast and lunch five days per week, in addition to providing other social services such as housing assistance, medical transportation, and counseling.
On the day of our visit, an experienced group of staff and volunteers served a traditional home-cooked Thanksgiving meal to a large number of people.
In addition to the 150 or so meals served each week, Lisa told us that an average of 150 families (400 to 500 people) use the food shelf each month. Our Place also delivers groceries to 31 seniors in the community each week.
Pitcher and her team are extremely grateful not only for the generosity of local businesses - including Black River Produce and Harlow Farm, which regularly donate food - but also for the increased awareness within the community, which has resulted from Project Feed the Thousands campaigns and initiatives.
Our Place Drop In Center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Breakfast is served from 9 to 10:30 a.m. and lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The food pantry is closed during lunch.
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I have now visited six of the nine food shelves and community kitchens that Project Feed the Thousands is supporting this year.
Each one is uniquely different - some serving meals; some open more often than others; some with only a few volunteers, others with many. Over and over, dedicated volunteers have impressed me with their steadfast enthusiasm and commitment, coupled with their courtesy and respect for those in need of their services.
They are staunch advocates for the less fortunate in our area, and they are truly an inspiration.