Packing the pantry in Vermont

COVID-19 has done a number on the small community of Barre, Vt. Lieutenant Christopher West said that before COVID-19 struck, the corps helped 200 to 225 people a week. That number is now more than 1,500 a week.

“The need has gone through the roof and the community has definitely come together and helped us collect food,” West said.

In October, the corps held a successful “Pack the Pantry” event outside a local Price Chopper store. Local radio station, Star 92.9 FM, and the Northfield Savings Bank joined the effort as partners. The corps organized a similar drive around Thanksgiving.

“We’ve stuffed a 53-foot tractor-trailer truck and a half with food,” West said. “We’re hoping the delivery helps us a lot with our food distribution. It definitely filled our pantry.”

West said the corps received “many thousands” of items, such as Ramen noodles, canned goods, and other non-perishable food. The corps also accepted hygiene products.

“Anyone who wanted to clean out their pantry or go grocery shopping for us, we accepted all their stuff,” West said. “It definitely was a community effort. A lot of people came together; a lot of businesses, a lot of churches that don’t have the services we do. They all just came together in a group effort.

“People just gave what they had and tried to help out the ones that are going without. People who maybe had a little bit, split it and gave to the ones who didn’t have anything. It was a heartwarming program, for sure.”

West said that the food drive the corps holds each year usually generates enough foodstuffs to cover the following year, but 2020 has been anything but typical.

“Our pantry was completely bare by the end of April this year,” West said. “COVID completely wiped us right out.”

Prior to COVID–19, the corps staff ran a soup kitchen out of their main building for lunches and dinners. But because of the virus, that was switched to a roadside stop-and-grab drive-thru, West said.

The food pantry procedures at the corps also changed. People used to call the corps and then show up in person to get their groceries. That had to be cancelled and changed to a contact-less process.

“We have a mobile food pantry,” he said. “If they can’t come to us, we deliver bags of groceries to their doorsteps.”

West said many businesses closed and people in this middle-class community lost their jobs due to COVID–19; restaurant workers were hit particularly hard. With schools closed, many parents had to stay home and help their children navigate online learning.

Local shelters also closed because of the virus, West said.

“They’ve put some people in hotels, but a lot of them are just out in the streets and looking for food and housing on a daily basis,” he said.

West said he recently spoke to a man who had lost his job after 30 years and never needed help before. Like many others, he had to decide whether to buy groceries or fuel to heat his home in chilly Vermont.

“It’s been kind of heartbreaking in a lot of ways,” West said of being a pastor during COVID–19. “You just see how much need is out there.

“They just have that constant question on their minds. Do I feed myself and my family or do I put the little bit of savings I have toward something else? We just try to do everything we can to help feed them physically and spiritually. All we can do is be here for people. We always tell them, ‘It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up.’ We’re here; neighbors helping neighbors, and that’s how we look at it.”

If you want to donate to the food pantry or would like more information, click here.

by Robert Mitchell

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