Food shelf reps discuss collaboration

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BRATTLEBORO — A presentation that began about the future of Groundworks Collaborative grew into a big-picture discussion about how local organizations that respond to hunger in the community can work together.

"We are at the tail end of a feasibility study for Groundworks," said Josh Davis, executive director, during a meeting of the Hunger Council of the Windham Region at the Winston Prouty Center on Wednesday. "We are looking at the current site for potential development. If that happens, we would have to move the food shelf."

Groundworks Collaborative operates a daily drop-in center and a food shelf at 60 South Main St. in Brattleboro. It also operates a shelter at 81 Royal Road, the former Morningside Shelter, and a winter overflow shelter at the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development on the campus of the former Austine School for the Deaf. It also offers a number of programs that provide ongoing support to families and individuals facing varying degrees of housing and food insecurities in the greater Brattleboro area.

"The food shelf currently operates in what is the space of a two-car garage," said Davis. "It's amazing what Christine [Colascione] and her crew can do in that space."

Colascione, food shelf coordinator, said the current space is about 800 square feet, and that space serves as storage and for administration and distribution.

On her "wish list" for a new food shelf is space for a kitchen, educational programs, a freezer and cooler, more parking spaces, and an office for her and her staff.

"We could use a minimum of 2,000 square feet," she said.

Davis said Groundworks hopes to move the food shelf within five to eight months and is in talks with two different organizations — whose names he wouldn't reveal in a public meeting — to provide space for the service.

Without getting into specifics, said Davis, both options have access challenges for people getting to the food shelf and moving food in and out of the buildings. But, Davis acknowledged, these are challenges that food shelves throughout Windham County are facing. Because the challenges are similar, Davis wondered if moving Groundworks' food shelf might be an opportunity for food-security organizations to work together and evaluate their models to identify areas for improvement.

The food shelf at 60 Main St. is open three-and-a-half days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday, as well as Tuesday afternoons.

According to the Vermont Foodbank, which serves as a central hub to collect and deliver food to families in Vermont, there are 30 providers in Windham County that supply food to 32 percent of the local population.

GROWING DEMAND

"The demands on these services are increasing," said Sue Graff, a field director for the Vermont Agency of Human Services.

Rather than just move the food shelf to a new location with the same model it's been operating under, Graff said the move could be an opportunity "to reimagine" its mission and how it provides services.

"This is a great opportunity for other food shelves to think about how they can operate more efficiently and more effectively," said Margaret Atkinson, co-chairwoman, with Lisa Pitcher, of the Hunger Council of the Windham Region. "There is a lot of energy and resources put into these projects. Maybe this is a chance to think differently about the way you are doing the work."

"The food shelves have done a great job," said Pitcher, "but the system is just a mess."

Each of the 30 providers in the region is responsible for its own fundraising, food collection and distribution, operating costs and volunteer recruitment, said Pitcher.

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"The system we have created is really entrenched," she said, and will require a short-term way to move toward "a sustainable path forward. As a charitable food system, we can only reach so far with the system in place, but disruption of the system will take more time."

Chris Thayer, representing the Vermont Foodbank, which has a distribution facility in the Book Press building owned by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, said the Foodbank is also hoping to find a new facility. Thayer suggested Groundworks consider working with the Foodbank in its search for a new location.

"We would like to get out of the building we are in now and get our own building," said Thayer. "We are in a conversation with Food Connects to make that happen. Maybe all of us could join together and build something."

A food hub operated by Food Connects aggregates and delivers food from more than 65 local farms and producers to more than 100 providers in southeast Vermont and southwest New Hampshire. Food Connects also runs a farm-to-school program in collaboration with 30 local schools.

The Vermont Foodbank operates VeggieVanGo, a truck that delivers free food to any and all takers at multiple locations, no questions asked.

"That model of direct distribution is pretty efficient compared to a food shelf being open different hours of the week," said Pitcher.

She said a central location that serves as a collection and distribution hub for the area's food shelves is an intriguing idea.

Davis was also intrigued by the idea of a central hub and is investigating the possibility of expanding the VeggieVanGo model.

"I am really excited about the mobile idea," he said, adding the idea of not having a walk-in site might take some getting used to. "Collaborating with Food Connects and the Foodbank would be really exciting. Groundworks is more than happy to take on the responsibility of organizing and facilitating the conversation."

Davis also spoke about some of the financial challenges Groundworks is facing in its operation of its food shelf.

FUNDING CHALLENGES

"The food shelf building is paid for; there is no overhead. But we are seeing increasing costs for food," he said. "Our primary source of funding has been Project Feed the Thousands. Unfortunately, that source has been going down the last couple of years."

This year's goal is $85,000, said Davis, adding it doesn't look like this goal will be met. Funds raised through Project Feed the Thousands aren't exclusively for Groundworks. Funds are also disbursed to other food shelves in the region.

Organizations such as Groundworks were hit hard when Entergy shuttered its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, said Davis.

"In the past, Entergy would give $40,000, which would have been about half of this year's goal," he said. "We have not been able to replace that source."

And if Groundworks moves its food shelf to a site removed from the Drop In Center on South Main Street, it might help remove some of the shame some people feel when going to get a bag of food for their families. While that is good, said Davis, more people going to a new location with increased operating costs means more of a financial burden for Groundworks.

Membership in the Hunger Council of the Windham Region is open to anyone with an interest in furthering the Council's vision that all people in the Windham Region have access to an adequate supply of nutritious food. To learn more, visit hungerfreevt.org or contact Jenna O'Donnell, Hunger Council Manager, at

jodonnell@hungerfreevt.org.


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