BRATTLEBORO -- As school ends this spring, so do school lunch programs and convenient, regular access to nutritious meals for many area children. That's why Project Feed the Thousands recently announced a special summer appeal to residents of southeastern Vermont and southwestern New Hampshire to help ensure that area kids get enough to eat each day through the warm months.
"Hunger is a year-round problem, and years of a down economy, followed by Tropical Storm Irene and other challenges, have only made the situation more difficult," stated Project Feed co-chair Kelli Corbeil in a press release.
For the 60 percent of children in local communities who qualify for reduced lunches and free breakfasts, school is sometimes their only source for regular, nutritious food. Summer lunch programs do everything they can to provide meals to local children, but only half of eligible families access these meals over the summer. Area food shelves do their best to reach families who can't easily access these summer programs, but they are struggling to keep up.
"For our local food shelves and community kitchens, resources are stretched thin even as hunger grows in our communities," stated Corbeil.
"We're focusing on financial donations this summer," said co-chair Jeff Morse. "Think of it this way. For the cost of a single ice cream cone, you can make sure that a kid in your own community eats lunch for a week. Who wouldn't trade that one ice cream
Lucie Fortier, Interim Director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, stated Feed the Thousands has a real, positive impact on children.
"It breaks your heart to see children who should spend the summer running and playing instead listless, with moms and dads worried about where the next meal is coming from," she stated. "Project Feed the Thousands truly is a lifeline, and to see so many people willing to lift up their less fortunate neighbors is so gratifying."
The tradition of Project Feed the Thousands goes back 18 years, when co-founders George Haynes and Larry Smith asked the community to fill a tractor trailer with donated food to donate to the Drop In Center.
"We got about 80 percent of the tractor filled the first year," Haynes told the Reformer. "We calculated that a tractor full would be about 2,500 grocery bags. We were just shy of that goal."
According to Haynes, they attempted to park their tractor trailer behind the bank where Haynes worked.
"After about the first week we realized that wasn't the brightest idea," Haynes joked.
Eventually, Haynes and Smith arranged it so people could send monetary donations to the bank and food items at drop-in boxes at grocery stores. But every year the need for food increased.
"We filled 25 tractor trailers this year and raised $130,000 in donations," Haynes said, proudly.
But the board of Feed the Thousands realized when kids are out of school for the summer, the need increases again.
"Hunger is so prevalent in Vermont, especially during the summer when children aren't in school," Haynes said. According to the National School Lunch Program, schools are mandated to provide students with access to often free meals during the school day.
"Almost 50 percent of kids take part in the school food meal," Haynes explained.
Feed The Thousands gives its food and funds to six food shelters, the largest being the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center. Other food shelves are located in Chester/Andover, Deerfield Valley, Townshend and Bellows Falls, among others.
"Some places didn't even have food shelves when we started," Haynes said.
The Brattleboro Area Drop In Center is the largest of these food shelves.
"We become the main source of food for some people because the grocery bills just get put aside," Fortier told the Reformer. "The food [from Feed The Thousands] comes directly to us and the money is divided between the food shelves."
Fortier explained that every little thing helps at the Drop In Center.
"School kids do their own project every Thanksgiving and I tell them that just a can of soup is going to help someone," she said. "If you can only afford to bring us one can of tuna, that means as much to me as five bags of groceries."
It is impossible to know who you are helping, but Fortier said there's an easy way to think about it.
"Think of your neighbors that might be in need, or a grandmother, or a parent. People aren't going to announce that they need help. They come here because we're confidential."
Project Feed the Thousands is the largest annual food drive in our area. It serves people of all ages in Southeastern Vermont, as well as New Hampshire border towns in collaboration with local businesses, schools, and community organizations. People may find more information and online donation forms at ProjectFeedTheThousands.org.
Carleen Busick will be a senior this fall at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She is interning at the Reformer this summer and lives in Wardsboro.