“Red’s here,” volunteers say as Gretchen Gundrum arrives at the South Burlington Food Shelf. It’s an endearing nickname based on hair color.

“It’s like watching a bunch of little kids come out for the ice cream truck,” Gundrum said.

She is both a client and board member of the South Burlington Food Shelf and stops by once a week to help feed her family.

“We’re at a point in our history right now where instead of trying to do it all, do it all at once and do it by yourself, community is so important,” she said.

That food shelf, just this month, celebrated its first birthday, or maybe anniversary — one year of keeping community bellies fuller.

Having the food shelf in town is convenient. Before, Gundrum went to Feeding Chittenden in downtown Burlington — where she still goes on occasion when the South Burlington Food Shelf is closed.

When COVID-19 hit and things grew uncertain, she but on her board member had and recommended the food shelf contact Feeding Chittenden for ideas about how to navigate going forward.

That’s how the pre-boxed pickups came to be.

She’s felt apprehension at times, but Gundrum has challenged stigmas around getting help when it’s needed.

“The dignity piece does come into play when you’re accessing, and you’re really hoping, ‘Oh my god please tell me I’m not going to get just a box of cans. Please tell me that there’s going to be something in here that’s going to have nutritional value,’” she said.

Humble beginnings

Two years ago, a group of eight people gathered around a table at Trader Duke’s, scheming up how to address hunger in the state’s second largest city.

Now the South Burlington Food Shelf has successfully made it through its first year of operation.

“We opened up Nov. 1, 2019, got our feet under us and then we jumped into the zombie apocalypse,” executive director Peter Carmolli said.

Indeed, just four months after its ribbon-cutting the coronavirus pandemic began to make headlines in the U.S.

But through it all, Carmolli sees a lot of good.

In its first year the shelf served about 350 households, surpassing what its founders anticipated, Carmolli said.

Groups of students at Rice Memorial High School, the South Burlington School District and local religious communities like Temple Sinai, among others, have held successful food drives. And community members haven’t been shy about stopping by to donate on their own.

“Every single day we’ve been open someone has come in with either food, or money or supplies or an offer to volunteer,” Carmolli said. “Even on the coldest, snowiest, sleetiest, windiest, most nasty day we still have people coming in bringing us stuff or just trying to help out.”

The South Burlington Food Shelf has yet to buy supplemental food from the Vermont Food Bank. Between donations, about 1,000 pounds per week of food from Trader Joe’s and regular contributions from Common Roots its shelves have stayed stocked, Carmolli said.

The ending of federal programs coupled with winter weather could increase demand at local food shelves. The Vermont FoodBank usually sees an uptick in demand in the winter, when increased living expenses like heating, plowing and other utilities turn Vermonters towards food banks.

Carmolli said it’s hard to say what the impact will be in South Burlington.

“We’re still giving out as much food as we can,” he said. “It really is heartwarming sometimes coming in and seeing someone brave a rainstorm, run in and say, ‘Hey I’ve got some stuff can you take it?’”

And even in a pandemic, there have always been volunteers, Carmolli said.

Linda Chaisson is one of those, helping multiple times per week and making friends in the process.

“It’s really been a very exciting experience, it’s also very humbling to serve the community in this way,” she said.

Volunteers pre-pack boxes of food for clients, who don’t actually enter the building because of COVID. Carmolli hopes that in the next year there will be a safe way to allow people inside again.

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