TOWNSHEND — Thanks to a six-month, $5,000 grant from the United Way of Windham County, 25 people, mostly elders, have been receiving weekly deliveries of easy-to-prepare meals and groceries.
These participants in the Last Mile Food Project also receive monthly deliveries of fresh vegetables from the Vermont Foodbank's VeggieVanGo program. Additionally, a local resident, Winnie Dolan, prepares homemade meals for monthly delivery.
Those receiving the free groceries and meals live in the West River Valley, which includes Jamaica, Townshend, Brookline, Newfane, and surrounding areas.
The Last Mile Food Project is the brainchild of the West River Valley Mutual Aid (WRVMA), one of the longest-running mutual aid programs in Vermont.
The WRVMA was founded early in the pandemic as a group of neighbors helping neighbors in this rural, underserved corner of Windham County.
The group established a delivery network for food access programs like Everyone Eats, where restaurants were paid to provide meals to anyone affected by the pandemic who needed a meal, and Veggie Van Go, a Vermont Foodbank program providing fresh produce and staples once a month.
The food project uses this network to continue to connect people with food resources.
According to Juliette Carr, project co-founder and member of WRVMA's steering committee, the project was created last spring.
WRVMA was designed to soften the landing for people who qualified for benefits under the pandemic state of emergency but who no longer do now that the state and federal governments have declared the emergency has ended - a concept known as a "benefits cliff."
At that time, Everyone Eats was ending, and agencies were re-evaluating who would qualify for many other government safety net programs like Meals on Wheels, 3SquaresVt (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, still often called "food stamps"), WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), and heating benefits. And many people were losing Medicaid.
"We were really worried because we know these people who were losing assistance - these are our neighbors," Carr said. "This project ensured that there was no gap in food delivery for our highest-risk community members."
"The volunteer effort has been amazing," she said. "It seems like you can't shake a tree in Vermont without a couple of heroes falling out."
One such hero: Kathy Squires, director of the Townshend Community Food Shelf, who packages the weekly deliveries.
Carr said the biggest challenge the project faces is identifying the need.
"The people who most need the help are not necessarily plugged into existing services, so they're not on a list. They are the people who live off a dirt road, off another dirt road, on the side of a mountain. They're very isolated, mostly elderly, very low income. These people have transportation barriers."
Carr, a nurse practitioner at Grace Cottage Hospital, noted that "in the health care field, we talk about factors that influence physical and mental health."
She called lack of transportation, which makes it impossible to access food, "one of the biggest influences on health in rural areas."
"Addressing even a small part of the transportation barrier through our project feels like a big accomplishment," she said.
The grant funds a delivery driver, Mike Bills, and the project coordinator, Ilana Newton.
"There are a lot of people who have more needs than the public might perceive: home-bound people, people who don't have cars, those who don't have a regular way to get out of the house," said Newton, a registered nurse at Grace Cottage Hospital and a lifelong southern Vermont resident. "The pandemic really brought them to the forefront. The amount of food insecurity in Vermont is so sad."
Bills has been delivering food since the program began.
"A lot of people are off the beaten path, they don't see many people, and don't have transportation," he said. "So the project is a way for them to get human contact and food. I'm thankful that I have the opportunity to do this."
Diana Lane is a recipient of the project.
"I don't have a car, so I rely on others," she said. "I'm very pleased with the program's offerings. Sometimes they do interesting things - like, they'll make a shamrock cookie on St. Patrick's Day."
And, she added, "The people are so nice. Mike is a sweetheart."
Need is increasing
For the Vermont Foodbank and its 250 food pantry partners throughout the state, the need has been increasing since the pandemic.
"With the [July] flooding, and the increased cost of living, the numbers continue to climb," according to Zach Hebert, an associate manager for community engagement at the Vermont Foodbank.
"Several food shelves in the area report having double the number of 'shoppers' in the past two years," he said. "Some food shelves have had to open more days each week and hire more staff to meet the need."
Hebert said that "events like the flooding or the pandemic - anything that disrupts our day-to-day life - is hard for everyone. But it's particularly hard for folks who have the least amount of resources to adjust to something like that."
"Unfortunately, for a lot of families, the easiest line in the budget to adjust is food, so they turn to a food shelf to make ends meet," he said.
"Mutual aid organizations are wonderful," said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide nonprofit organization providing anti-hunger advocacy, training, technical assistance, and public education. "It's admirable and valuable for communities to come together and collaborate on taking care of people in their communities."
However, Horton said that "the scale of the problem that we have in Vermont with hunger and the lack of transportation really requires the government to take accountability so that nobody goes hungry."
"We need statewide solutions to our transportation problems, to ensure that grocery stores are accessible to every community," she said. "There's no reason why anybody should be experiencing hunger in our state."
The Vermont Foodbank is grappling with how to sustain their response in the long term.
"After an emergency, the immediate response is critically important, but the long-term recovery takes so much more time and is often hidden," said Hebert.
"It's often easy to do the emergency cleanup but then to forget about the long-term impact that it has on families and their budgets," he said.
How to sustain the Last Mile Food Project after the grant runs out is one of WRVMA's biggest challenges.
"The logistics of running the project long-term is probably more than we have volunteer capacity for," said Carr. "But we would love to see it continue."
She called it "a really good program, filling an important need in the community."
"We'd love to find a more established community-based organization to take it over," she said.
Newton added that she, Carr, and other members of WRVMA's Steering Committee - Gloria Cristelli, Jeryl Julian Cisse, and Kate Gehring - are grateful to those who worked with them to improve food access in the West River Valley.
They cited the close collaboration of the United Way of Windham County's Community Impact Committee for awarding the grant, United Way of Windham County Executive Director Ruben Garza for guidance and encouragement, Restorative Justice of Southern Vermont for fiscal sponsorship, and Kathy Squires, director of the Townshend Community Food Shelf.
"Everybody involved in this project - people working behind the scenes to make it happen - all have positive things to say about it," said Carr.
"It's really nice to see your volunteer work filling a gap and making a big difference for people who need it," she said. "Everyone's pretty happy. And with all the bad news lately, how often do you get to be happy, you know? We are having a moment of happy!"
More information about the Last Mile Food Project can be found at westrivervalleymutualaid.wordpress.com.
This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.