Brattleboro free food distribution sees big turnout
BRATTLEBORO — Long lines of cars are normally a rare sight here.
But on Wednesday, they were longer than ever when the state distributed free food in a parking lot at Brattleboro Union High School as part of its response to food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I've been reading about all the other times they've done this and how many cars they had so I knew they were going to be busy," said Rick Paul of Springfield, who was first in line.
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Farmers to Families Food Box Distribution allows people to drive up to sites around the state, where members of the Vermont National Guard load free food inside of vehicles. The only questions asked involve household size and community of residence.
Cassie Fraser, marketing associate with the Abbey Group, said about 850 cars were loaded with packages that included milk, chicken, cheese, butter and produce. When those ran out, the Guard was still giving away boxes of food from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said he was surprised by the large turnout.
"We expected a lot of people; we did not expect this," Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi said. "This is truly something you would see on TV in, you know, a tornado-devastated or hurricane-devastated area. This is certainly not an everyday event for Brattleboro, Vermont."
Bucossi said the Guard did "a super job" getting people in and out. Fitzgerald also applauded the organization of the event.
"A majority of people have followed our traffic route," he said. "Unfortunately, there's a small group that tried to take shortcuts."
Tavis Rose of Brattleboro said she arrived just after 8 a.m., expecting a big turnout.
"It is awesome," she said. "I just wish it wasn't during a crisis. I wish it was always."
A lot of planning goes into organizing these events, said Guard Staff Sgt. Darren Farnsworth.
"Setting up a system like this, we're running people through in about four hours — 100 cars in 28 minutes," he said. "The four hours we're on the ground here takes about 14 to 16 hours to execute."
Farnsworth estimated about 60 percent of the attendees "absolutely need" the food.
"You're filling in where, you know, other channels can't and that's what this all about," he said. "We're all in this together and we have to get through this. This isn't just going to go away overnight. A lot of people think this is just the flu. It's not just the flu."
Fraser said the Brattleboro event was the seventh to happen in Vermont since the pandemic hit. Her group works with the Vermont Foodbank, the Guard and the state to bid on a contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The government reimburses the Abbey Group for purchasing the food that is provided to the food bank and then distributed at sites.
Fraser said nearly 2,000 cars came to the first event in Berlin earlier this month and 550 cars were counted in Burlington on Tuesday.
"It is available to everybody," she said. "You don't have to register. You just have to show up."
Jean Wells and Rhonda Class of Vernon arrived about two-and-a-half hours before distribution was scheduled to begin. Wells said the event helps children and the elderly.
One family expressed disappointment over a flyer shared on Facebook saying that collections could be made for up to three families. They said they were not able to get as much food for other community members as they planned for, feeling they would have if they went separately instead of in a van in an effort to save money by carpooling with other people.
Calvin Barnes of Vernon said he came to get food for himself and someone else.
"It's very important for people who are needing and don't want to go to the stores," he said.
Town Manager Peter Elwell said nearly 1,000 households were served by the site.
"Some of them lined up as much as three hours prior to the start of the event," he said. "It is clear that food insecurity is a continuing challenge that we all must keep working together to address. Today's collaboration of several State agencies and several Town departments was outstanding. We look forward to similar joint efforts in the future."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.
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