Friday September 2, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- Even in the best of times, local food shelves struggle to provide sustenance to their clients.

Since the economic crash, they have seen a spike in demand and food has been flying off the shelves almost as fast as the grocery bags can be filled.

Now food pantries have another group of people to take care of -- those affected by Irene.

"We have 30,000 pounds of food going out today not related to Irene," said John Sayles, CEO of Vermont Foodbank. "We have to maintain what we are doing and pick up our game. We can't stop providing the base level of support. This is a crisis for many people in our state, but many people are facing a crisis every day."

The Vermont Foodbank has been working with Vermont Emergency Management to support local food shelves and meal sites that suffered losses or are experiencing a higher demand than normal.

The Foodbank works with 59 agencies in Brattleboro alone, including SEVCA, the Brattleboro Housing Authority, Brigid's Kitchen and the Boys & Girls Club.

"Our challenges are the challenges of our network partners," said Sayles. "We are trying as best we can to support their needs."

First and foremost, said Sayles, is to get foods that don't need to be cooked, such as granola bars and canned food, out to those who need it.

"We are taking our lead from our partners," said Sayles. "It doesn't make sense to drop off food they can't use.


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Getting food to the pantry in Wilmington has been especially challenging, said Sayles.

"But we are doing the best we can," he said.

"We need stuff," said Therese Lounsbury, the president of the board of directors of the Deerfield Valley Food Shelf, which re-opened Thursday morning.

"We're getting down to the wire with bags of donations," she said. "The challenge is getting a roadway open from Brattleboro that the Vermont Foodbank can travel on with a big truck."

In addition to the food shelf's regular customers, at least 58 families were displaced by the storm, said Lounsbury.

The food shelf will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the garage of their building at 7 Church Street, she said. It is normally open two days a months.

Food donations are good, but money is better, said Lounsbury.

"Monetary donations we can stretch further," she said.

Donations can be sent directly to the Deerfield Valley Food Shelf at PO Box 1743, Wilmington, Vt., 05363.

Late Thursday night, the Reformer learned that tractor trailers have been cleared on a case-by-case basis to deliver supplies via Route 9 to Shaw's and Rite Aid in Wilmington so the residents of surrounding towns can continue to buy supplies there and not have to drive into Brattleboro. However, Route 9 is still not open to regular traffic.

Melinda Bussino, the executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, said on Wednesday that the food shelves were bare, but a stroke of good fortune put a bright spot on the day.

"We got 140 bags of food from Load the Latchis, despite the fact they canceled it," said Bussino. "The foodshelf is much better stocked today."

"If you postpone, they still come," said Peter "Fish" Case, WKVT talk show host, who has been organizing Load the Latchis.

Because the theater was damaged by the Flat Street flood, Load the Latchis is being scheduled for a different, as yet to be determined, location. Rather than filling the chairs at the Latchis, said Case, they will be filling up a truck with food donations to be distributed to food shelves.

Bussino said people brought the bags directly to the Drop In Center and the donations were very welcome.

"We work on a shoestring, week to week," she said. "We can't suddenly just reach into our back pocket."

Toni Dezendorf, a board member with the Townshend Community Food Shelf, said that though their structure wasn't affected by the storm, she knows the demand will be great when they open the doors.

"We are trying to build up our supply," she said.

The Townshend Food Shelf is open Monday nights from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and serves people from Wilmington to Windham to Brattleboro, said Dezendorf.

Prior to the storm, the food shelf was feeding 150 to 200 people a week, she said.

"We will see an increase, not only in our normal clientele but people who have never needed us before," said Dezendorf.

The Townshend Community Foodshelf is located in the church on the town common.

Elaine Beckwith, of the Jamaica/Wardsboro Community Food Pantry, said many of its clients, especially those in Wardsboro, won't be able to get to the food shelf.

"People are still having a really hard time getting out," she said. "So many people are isolated. They don't have electricity, they don't have water and they don't have refrigeration."

The storm has forced the food pantry to remodel its whole operation, said Beckwith.

"We've had to think on our feet," she said. "Some of our deliveries went by ATV."

And instead of being open only one day a month, the food shelf will be open one day a week for the time being, said Beckwith, who said they're in it for the long haul.

"It's not going to end tomorrow," she said. "It's going to be week to week."

The Jamaica/Wardsboro Community Food Pantry is located on Main Street in Wardsboro.

For those who are totally cut off from help, the National Guard has been airlifting in supplies.

Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow, spokesman for the Vermont National Guard, said a helicopter unit from Illinois has been ferrying supplies to those communities in what is being called "Task Force Green Mountain Spirit."

The Illinois unit was called in because Vermont's helicopter unit is currently deployed in Iraq.

The National Guard has also delivered 50 truckloads of FEMA supplies via flatbed, said Goodrow.

"We have additional FEMA trucks coming in today," said Goodrow.

It's not just the folks at the food shelves and the soldiers with the National Guard that have been helping out.

Mike Chudzik, the owner of Brattleboro Wireless Zone Verizon on Putney Road, has been collecting food and money for the local food shelves.

Earlier this week he brought a load of food and water to emergency responders in Townshend.

"They didn't have any water," he said. "I might as well have been handing them bags of gold."

Today Chudzik will be delivering a load of food to the Townshend Community Food Shelf.

"The next one will be to Wilmington," he said.

He's been knocking on doors of local businesses and asking them to chip in.

So far 99 Steakhouse, One Stop Country Pet Supply, Brattleboro Bowl, Stacy Subaru, True Value, Northend Butchers and WTSA have contributed in one way or another.

He also convinced Verizon to make what he calls a "big, 3-zero" donation.

Sayles, of the Vermont Foodbank, said truckloads of emergency supplies donated by retail grocery stores and food distributors are being delivered to the Foodbank over the next few days. It has received a great response from grocers such as Shaws, Hannaford and C&S Wholesale Grocers and has been receiving assistance from Feeding America, he said.

"We have about 15 additional truckloads coming in a week from tomorrow," said Sayles.

He said the additional need is going to continue for at least several months.

"This is not an emergency or a crisis that is going to be over next week or next month," said Sayles. "We're planning long term."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.