On Sundays, Ian Earle sets up tables at Brattleboro Transportation Center to serve meals he has cooked at Centre Congregational Church to those in need.
Courtesy photo
On Sundays, Ian Earle sets up tables at Brattleboro Transportation Center to serve meals he has cooked at Centre Congregational Church to those in need.

Meal sites feel pressure as need from hungry Vermonters doubles

At Loaves & Fishes, volunteers scramble to keep donations of dollars and ingredients on track for more hot meals

At Loaves & Fishes, one of the region's enduring meal services for those in need, volunteer cook David Treadwell says that "the demand has doubled."

The number of meals prepared and distributed every Tuesday and Friday out of the vast kitchen, prep, serving area in the basement of Centre Congregational Church (CCC) has gone from 100 per day a year ago to 250 every Tuesday and 200 on Fridays, says Loaves & Fishes facilitator and volunteer coordinator Ruth Tilghman of St. Michael's Episcopal Church (SME).

One needs look no further than downtown Brattleboro for evidence of the current conditions nationwide.

After 2021, the rate of food insecurity among low-income households in the U.S. increased to 37% in 2022 (higher than pre-Covid pandemic levels) and 44% in July 2023.

Moreover, according to a June 2023 U.S. Commerce Department report, income inequality continues to rise dramatically in the U.S., while inflation, though dropping slightly to its lowest point since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, is still now at the fourth highest rate of the last 10 years. That's been painfully evident at the supermarket.

As the website of Hunger Free Vermont explains, "Hunger exists in every community in America, and in Vermont. It's not always visible, but thousands of people in Vermont struggle to afford enough food for themselves and their families every day. This struggle is not new. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 1 in 10 people in Vermont faced hunger."

But the pandemic, the organization explains, "has put significant pressure on households across the country; nearly half of American adults have experienced economic hardship during this time. Hunger and economic hardship go hand-in-hand, and in Vermont, 1 in 3 of us have faced hunger at some point during the last two [plus] years."

Moreover, the Families First Coronavirus Response's Act 3SquaresVt food assistance ended a year ago, and for two years, Vermont has had the second-highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the U.S.

Four decades of helping

Food insecurity is hardly a new challenge: Forty years ago, Centre Congregational Church in downtown Brattleboro inaugurated Loaves & Fishes as one of its ministries, joining forces with St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church (SMRCC) and other food distribution efforts, including those at Agape Church and Trinity Lutheran Church.

Today, SMRCC's own St. Brigid's Kitchen and Loaves & Fishes prepare and serve meals to the community, adhering to the mission, according to Tilghman, "to feed anyone who is hungry and food insecure."

Early on at Loaves & Fishes, the late Dorothy (Dodo) Rice, a SME member, joined the ministry and helped to grow the program, which endures today as a joint ministry between Centre Church and SME.

Support for Loaves & Fishes comes from the Vermont Foodbank, from an occasional fundraising event, from individual donations of money and food, through grants from local agencies and banks, and from area businesses.

"Project Feed the Thousands is a big supporter," Tilghman said. "Centre Congregational does a plate offering four times a year, and SME encourages ongoing donations of food and funds, gives through its mission and outreach committee, and donates all proceeds from its annual tag sale to Loaves & Fishes. Last year that donation was $10,500."

She said that the project sees daily signs of "the miracle of Loaves & Fishes" in the form of discarded food from Market 32 or "massive quantities of Foodbank cases and the generosities of neighbors."

Through those generosities, Tilghman said, "our meal is created."

Prior to the pandemic, Loaves & Fishes served the community in need in situ; in recent years, though, they prepare and move some 450 meals out into the community each week.

Each week, they also prepare and distribute 35 bags of groceries to shut-ins, which include fresh, frozen, boxed, and canned food.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, prepared meals are sent to Groundworks and to its food shelf, Foodworks; food is distributed in boxes to people living in public or subsidized housing in Brattleboro, including those at The Chalet, Red Clover Commons, the Elliot Street High Rise, Hayes Court.

In addition, those in hospice care and their families are delivered meals, and some 50 to 80 meals are served out the door.

Volunteers make it happen

Marshall Patton has been volunteering at Loaves & Fishes for about 11 years. An Army veteran, originally from St. Louis, Missouri, he's lived in Brattleboro for 30 years working a few jobs, including Amtrak station manager and parking meter maintenance staffer.

When asked what he got out of volunteering at Loaves & Fishes, he curmudgeonly said, "I hate people, but I will help them. I just like helping people."

Treadwell has been volunteering "not quite three years." He was drawn to it, he says, by Tilghman, who frequently - and successfully - scouts for volunteers among SME's parishioners.

"In the ennui of lockdown, I was looking for something to do; Mary [Lindquist, SME rector] knew that, and she gave my name to Ruth, who called to say, 'How'd you like to spend maybe an hour a week doing deliveries?'"

That's where he started. "Then they discovered I can cook a little, so they graduated me from delivery to outside the kitchen chopping carrots."

And so it went, he said: "I soon moved on to cooking: It went from one hour a week to 15."

Treadwell, a chemist who retired to Brattleboro from Texas, said, "I love the people; I like cooking; I like feeding people" - literally and metaphorically, he added.

"This is something I do to give back to the community that has welcomed me with open arms once I moved here four years ago," he said. "I don't want to be a burden, don't want to be useless around here. This makes me a part of the Brattleboro community."

In addition to Loaves & Fishes and St. Brigid's Kitchen, other efforts spring up in the community, and those needing a meal can find one every day of the week in Brattleboro.

"One of our volunteers, Ian Earle, is doing meals over at the Transportation Center on Sundays. He's 30-something, homeless; he cooks food [at CCC] Sundays and takes it over" to serve to those in need.

"There are so many people who come in here and do different things and they don't really get any attention," another volunteer, Cliff Wood, points out.

Volunteers bag the groceries and bake desserts every week. "There's another group that comes in Monday and Wednesday," to do any heavy lifting required, he said. "We also get four people with disabilities who help weekly and, in the summer, we get college students who volunteer through SME," as does Wood.

"What started as a couple hours a week has grown to a two-day weekly commitment, from 6 a.m. to 1 or 2 p.m., but I love it," Wood said.

Tilghman has been with Loaves & Fishes for 17 years, most recently at the helm. "I do it," she says, "because it gives me purpose in life, and when you get older, your purpose can go down the tube. I have a community here that I value. And this is something that is really important in life - that we don't forget those who don't have. That we do the Jesus thing.

"This is all about community and being in community - those served, as well as those who serve, numbering some 25 per week," Tilghman added.

"We have volunteers who come from agencies in town and from Black Mountain Assisted Living. This is his job," she said, nodding toward a volunteer seated next to an aide. "He's bagging flour as we speak."

"This is important to the people who want to give back to the community in whatever way they can," Tilghman said.

'The need won't go away'

In addition to the grocery distribution and the meals served, Loaves & Fishes has responded to refugees' need for a market which carries foods they can eat.

Tilghman said a "nice start-up grant was received from the Foodbank" and so the Afghan and Refugee Market was established. With support, too, from individual donations as well as the Windham County NAACP, "we figured what they needed and we have food for them. Folks from African countries are coming in now, so we had to look up foods [that suit their diets." A lot of research was done.

Addressing the doubling of meals needed and served over the past year, Tilghman stresses that income has not doubled to match the increased demand.

"The need won't go away," Tilghman said.

* * *

It does indeed take a village to sustain a service like Loaves & Fishes. Volunteers are needed as bakers of desserts and breads, packers of meals, delivery people, cooks, and helpers to receive deliveries from the Vermont Foodbank and Market 32. Those interested in volunteering should contact Tilghman at [email protected].

To donate to Loaves & Fishes, visit secure.myvanco.com/L-ZJJ8/ or send a check to Loaves & Fishes, 193 Main St., Brattleboro, VT 05301.

This News item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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