BENNINGTON — The departing director of the local Meals on Wheels program says she's happy to have seen it expand and that she could provide healthy food to people who need it.
"Leaving is bittersweet in a way," said Susan Fox, who has led the Bennington County Meals on Wheels program for about eight years. "But I really feel as if I've been able to make an impact. We've been able to help people get what they deserve: The right nutrition, and some fun."
She said many area residents still need better access to quality, healthy food, and education around nutrition.
Fox's tenure was celebrated during a lunch ceremony at the Bennington Senior Center on Friday. The same ceremony served as a welcome to incoming director Ilsa Svoboda.
The MOW program provides about 50,000 meals to Bennington County residents each year. Most of the 200 meals each day are delivered to people's homes. Others take their meals at the senior center or meal sites in Manchester, East Arlington, Stamford and Pownal.
The program once relied on processed foods and canned items, but it's evolved into a farm-to-table model, Fox said. Fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be wasted are gleaned from local farms or donated by grocery stores. Volunteers and staff think creatively and try new recipes with what ingredients they have available. Guests are offered restaurant-style service at the program's cafe five days a week, and Fox said that opportunity to socialize is essential.
"We have a lot of people here from all walks of life. Some people come here every day. They learn to care about each other. It breaks down social barriers," Fox said.
Fox announced this summer she would leave the organization to pursue other opportunities. The Bondville resident has a background in social work, psychology and cooking, having been trained in French cuisine. She was a volunteer and board member before becoming the executive director in 2009.
"Susan has created a unique and very important model of providing fresh, nutritious, healing meals to Bennington county residents," Seline Skoug, chairwoman for the MOW board, said. "We will miss her and also wish her well in her next endeavour. With Ilsa's leadership we have no doubt that the fresh food movement established at MOW will continue and we look forward to expanding our reach in Bennington County."
Fox said the program has benefited from the state's universal recycling law, or Act 148, part of which requires businesses and residents to prevent throwing food away. Produce, dry goods and other items are saved in "food rescue" efforts by the Vermont Foodbank, which distributes them to programs like Bennington's MOW.
"We would not have been able to afford anything like this," Fox said. She noted programs like Bennington's receive minimal government funds. "And we're able to expose people to healthy food and vegetables they may not eat."
Fox, who has been working alongside Svoboda during the transition, was busy on Friday working with staff and volunteers, and greeting and speaking with guests.
"One word that describes Susan: Gracious," said Joanne Beck. "She's loving and accepting to everyone."
Beck said she's been a social work intern at MOW since the spring. She said she helped out in many areas and learned a lot from Susan, including how to write a grant. And Beck said she loves the staff, volunteers and people who benefit from MOW.
"It's a community, it's fun," she said.
Contact Ed Damon at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.