ST. ALBANS — How to get locally grown food into the hands of those at risk of hunger is an ongoing challenge, and the Franklin-Grand Isle Hunger Council resumed discussion of the subject last week.
The logistical challenges are many. If food is to be gleaned from fields, someone needs to do the gleaning. The food must be transported and then stored until it can be distributed. The recipients need to know how to cook it and have the equipment to do the cooking.
John Gorton is the volunteer manager of the Sheldon food shelf, run out of the United Methodist Church basement there. He still has fresh cabbage. “There’s lots of things you can do with a fresh cabbage, if you know how,” said Groton.
To that end the Northwest Healthy Roots Collaborative is developing a curriculum food shelves can use to teach clients how to cook from scratch, said director Kristen Hughes.
Even with the knowledge, cooking can be a challenge.
“I had a lady who didn’t even have a stove,” said Jane olrowski of the Fairfield food shelf, adding that even those with stoves may not have other cooking equipment.
Still, familiar fresh foods, such as potatoes move quickly, said Gorton, adding he recently had provided them to 100 families within an hour and a half of receiving them from the Vermont Food Bank.
The food bank does offer vegetables that wouldn’t otherwise make it to market. Such fresh produce arrives by the truckload and all of the member food shelves in the area send their own trucks to pick it up. Robert Ostermeyer, executive director of Franklin-Grand Isle Community Action, described it by saying, “The mother ship arrives. A dozen small trucks descend on it.”
While the food shelf volunteers are clearly pleased to have the food, storing it until they can distribute it can be a challenge, said Dobrowski.
“One of the issues is it has to move and it has to move fast,” said Gorton.
Last year, Gorton received squash from a local farmer who had grown more then he could sell. Some of it went bad before it could be given out, according to Gorton. Ostermeyer pointed to that as an example of the need for processing capability.
If there was access to a professional kitchen and volunteers to do the work then the squash could have been processed and frozen for later distribution, as local Andrew Judge was able to do with pumpkins last year, Ostermeyer noted. The challenge is having the infrastructure and volunteers in place when what will need to be processed is often unknown until the food comes in.
“We’re counting on there being some excess produce we can capture for people,” said Gorton.
This year he did not received piles of extra squash, for example, because the farmer cut back production to be more in line with his sales. “As a producer, he can’t afford to give away gaylords (a large cardboard bulk bin on a pallet) and gaylords of squash,” said Gorton.
Food shelves, said Ostermeyer, rely on “funny foods,” that oddly shaped pepper the grower can’t sell but which is perfectly edible.
Nationwide, food manufacturers and grocery stores have become better at predicting sales and thus have less excess cereal and other processed foods to donate, explained Ostermeyer.
The upside is that in Vermont Act 148, which is aimed at reducing the amount of waste going to landfills, is bringing more perishable foods such as meat and dairy into food shelves.
The challenge for food shelves is having the refrigerator and freezer space to store the largesse. “We’re on the cusp of our capacity,” said Ostermeyer.
Community action has increased the amount of meat and dairy it distributes, allowing those in need to receive meat up to three times per month. Ostermeyer said the group would like to share the bounty with the smaller food shelves in Franklin and Grand Isle, but many of them lack the needed freezer and refrigeration space.
Dobrowolski noted there also are people in need that the food shelves aren’t reaching, which led to discussion of how to find new ways to reach people.
The Franklin-Grand Isle Hunger Council has been asked to help develop a tool for assessing the capacity of areas to distribute food diverted by Act 148 into area food shelves. The council, which includes representatives from any and all organizations, agencies and institutions involved in feeding people, including schools and the University of Vermont Extension Service, may form a subcommittee to focus just on that.
The council is chaired by Ostermeyer and Catherine Dimitruk of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission. It is sponsored by Hunger Free Vermont.