BRATTLEBORO – A program that brings fresh, free produce to Vermont schools and hospitals each month is expanding with another stop in Windham County.
Vermont Foodbank’s “VeggieVanGo” initiative is coming to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, where a mobile food pantry will be set up from noon to 1 p.m. on the third Monday of every month starting July 17.
The program is relatively new but already includes 13 monthly stops, with Brattleboro Memorial representing the 14th. Vermont Foodbank spokeswoman Nicole Whalen said it’s a way to share an increasing amount of donated produce while also meeting a growing need across the state.
“We’ve had some really great response,” Whalen said. “We’re looking at how we can continue to grow the program in a sustainable and smart way.”
While federal statistics show a recent downward trend in Vermont’s “food insecurity” rates, some who work directly with the public beg to differ. In Windham County’s West River Valley region, for example, hospital, school and nonprofit administrators are teaming up with several new initiatives to combat hunger.
Those efforts are, in part, an outgrowth of Vermont Foodbank’s VeggieVanGo stops at Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend. Grace Cottage is Vermont’s smallest hospital, but officials have said 50 to 60 people show up each month to claim a share of the mobile food bank’s offerings.
Now, that same service will be available monthly at Brattleboro Memorial’s loading dock on Maple Street.
“We believe health starts with good nutrition, and we see an increased need for access to healthy food,” hospital spokeswoman Gina Pattison said.
The hospital’s new partnership with the Vermont Foodbank is seen as an extension of Brattleboro Memorial’s Community Health Team. Jodi Dodge, a nurse who directs that team, said there also will be “support and education about healthy food” available at the event.
That’s the case at VeggieVanGo stops statewide.
In addition to offering fresh produce and other products such as cheese and yogurt, the Vermont Foodbank says the goal is to “create a gathering place that offers support and conversations about healthy food.”
There are cooking demonstrations and taste tests, along with information on 3SquaresVT, the state’s nutrition assistance program.
While VeggieVanGo events at schools are targeted at students and their families, the hospital stops are open to all local residents. There are no eligibility requirements or background questions.
“There’s no screening of people once they arrive,” Whalen said. “We’re not turning people away.”
She also said a mobile food bank is a “way to meet people where they are,” since a lack of transportation can be a major barrier in rural Vermont.
VeggieVanGo, which started in spring 2016, also is a way for the Vermont Foodbank to more efficiently handle large amounts of produce.
Whalen said the organization, which is based in Barre Town, has been bolstering its relationships with Vermont farms, partly through a large-scale gleaning program in which the Vermont Foodbank directly harvests excess or irregular produce from fields.
The result is a big increase in produce inventories, along with the increased challenge of trying to quickly share it. That’s where VeggieVanGo comes in.
In fiscal year 2016, the Vermont Foodbank distributed 465,000 pounds of Vermont produce. That’s up from 200,000 pounds distributed in 2012.
“We needed a way that we could distribute produce rapidly – turn it around and get it to the people who need it,” Whalen said.