BERLIN — The Vermont Foodbank estimated that 1,900 cars showed up to receive boxes of food at the Edward F. Knapp State Airport on Friday — so many that some were turned away.
Lines of cars stretched along Airport Road leading into the site’s only entrance. Once inside the gate, drivers queued up along both of the airport’s runways. The Foodbank estimated that the lines totaled 5 miles.
At the front of the line, soldiers from the Vermont National Guard loaded each car with about 50-60 pounds of food: a combination of nonperishable pantry items provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with boxes of meat, produce and dairy provided through the new Farmers to Families program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For the first time, that program has allowed the Foodbank and the Guard to distribute fresh food to Vermonters. Recipients took home chicken, Cabot cheese, fruits and vegetables supplied by Springfield-based distributor Black River Produce and gallons of Hood milk. The Abbey Group, based in Enosburg Falls, is carrying out the program in partnership with the Foodbank and the Guard.
Capt. Sigrid Tantillo, who oversees the Vermont National Guard’s food distribution operation, said the turnout in Berlin was “much greater” than previous distributions.
Repackaging the additional items required extra work from her team, Tantillo said, compared to past events where soldiers distributed only boxes of nonperishable meals ready-to-eat, or MREs. “It just takes a little more time, a couple more steps,” she said, “but it’s nothing we can’t handle.”
Brig. Gen. Greg Knight, the adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, helped load boxes into vehicles alongside other Guard members. Knight said the massive turnout proved that there’s a major need. “Vermonters are hurting,” he said.
Demand at previous meal distribution sites across the state has been high. The first two events, in late April, drew so many people in need that the three following events were postponed while organizers replenished supplies. A recent survey by researchers at the University of Vermont showed that food insecurity has risen by about a third during the coronavirus pandemic.
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Carmen Gonier drove from South Royalton to pick up meals on Friday. “We’re lucky,” Gonier said — she and her husband are both still employed. But they have six children, plus two from another family that live in their household, and their grocery costs have gone up. “There’s no overtime,” Gonier said, and she’s dealing with the “stress … of not being sure what’s going to happen next.”
A few cars behind her, Kimberlie Koalenz-Rosa, of Barre, was hoping to pick up meals for several other families who couldn’t drive to the event or were working. Koalenz-Rosa said as a metalworker, she’s still able to make and sell jewelry to earn an income, but she wants to look out for her neighbors. “I’m OK,” she said, “but I’ve been feeding a lot of families with what I have.”
Friday’s distribution event was scheduled to last from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Shortly before the end time, the Foodbank tweeted that cars that still had not reached the gate would be turned away “due to limited quantities.” More distribution events are scheduled in other locations through the end of May, including events next week in Peru, Middlebury, Thetford and Morrisville.
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