The pandemic has brought an increase in demand for food assistance in Shelburne — and the community has responded.
Starting in March, the Shelburne Food Shelf and the Champlain Valley School District’s kitchen beefed up their programs to help families cope as people lost jobs and income to the COVID-19 shutdown.
“Last October we served 65 households. This past month, we served 131,” Susan Stock, chair of the Shelburne Food Shelf, said. “We have families we have never seen before.”
The nonprofit, volunteer food shelf normally operates a free, small-scale grocery store that carries fruits, vegetables, packaged foods, cheeses and meat. But the grocery couldn’t operate during the spring shutdown, just as demand rose.
So, in March, the food shelf first shifted to curbside service with customized bags for each household, then in April began to make deliveries to families in need, since many couldn’t get to the curbside pickup.
The group quickly outgrew that, too.
“The demand has gotten so big. Finding enough drivers has been a challenge and packing that many bags — it’s just gotten beyond the capability of the organization to do that,” Stock said. For now, the food shelf has moved back to in-person shopping, in the activity room in the town offices, a space six times larger than the program’s previous home in the building.
Shoppers must make an appointment either online or by phone. Volunteers take temperatures and collect contact tracing information at the door. Everyone has to wear a mask and no lines are allowed inside. The food shelf has air filtration units inside the space and have opened the windows to make it as safe as possible.
Stock said an in-town food assistance program is important because many of those it serves would not travel to the food shelf in Burlington.
“They feel that it’s too big and too bureaucratic,” she said, adding that, in contrast, “Most of us on the [board know 80 percent of people well enough that we could have a conversation with them on the street,” she said.
Stock said that she is unsure how much longer the organization will be able to provide in-person shopping because COVID cases are increasing. Switching back to delivery would be difficult. “Continuing customized bags is going to be almost impossible with the demand level,” she said. “We will probably be forced to create standard bags to deliver curbside.”
The Shelburne Food Shelf sources most of its food from the Vermont Food Bank, but because of the high demand it has had to purchase food as well. That increased the need for cash donations to the food shelf. “Luckily people in the town have been fabulous and have donated more funds than a normal year, which is terrific because we’ve used them,” Stock said. The food shelf has seen a 97 percent increase in donations this fiscal year compared to last fiscal year.
Some of that additional help came from members of the Wake Robin senior community, where there is a tradition of collecting packaged food to donate to the food shelf. When the pandemic shutdown prevented residents from shopping at grocery stores, the Wake Robin volunteers switched to soliciting cash contributions.
In April, Jill Rierdan, coordinator of the Wake Robin effort, started a monthly prize drawing for the resident who contributed the most. “That was self-supporting after my one and only bottle of wine that I donated the first month. Then other people just donated,” Rierdan said. Wake Robin was able to switch back to food donations in July.
“That’s wonderful when there are people who are sensitive to the needs of the neighbors and immediately start making a switch in terms of how to express that,” Rierdan said.
Like the food shelf, the Champlain Valley School District found new ways to meet demand during the pandemic.
“It’s completely different than what we’re used to seeing,” Food Service Director Scott Wagner said. The district serves about half of the students enrolled with hot and cold meals that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional standards.
During the shutdown in March, food service staff were considered essential workers, so the school system was able to prepare and deliver free meals to anyone 18 years and younger. The district had never done remote meals before but created a system in which families could order meals online to pick-up or to be delivered to their homes three days a week.
The district does not have enough students eligible for free and reduced meals to qualify in normal years for the summer food service funded by the USDA. This summer, the feds gave the district a waiver so that it could provide children with food through June 30 next year.
“We know that we’re meeting needs because so many people have sent us emails, letters and posted things on Facebook about how helpful it has been to get meals,” he said.