It takes a village to run a food shelf

The Food Shelf is open from 10 am till noon, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

It takes a village to run a food shelf
Food - and more: Food shelf director Mary Allen holds up a warm hat - one of several donated to the Food Shelf

Step into the Thetford Food Shelf, and you’ll likely be greeted with a cheerful,  “Hi, come on in! How are you?”

The atmosphere immediately feels relaxed and welcoming. The volunteers who keep the place running laugh and joke while they work and treat their clients like family. The place feels like a small, cozy supermarket, offering the full gamut of fresh and canned foods, milk, eggs, meat, personal care products, dog and cat food, even greeting cards. Setting the tone is Mary Allen, director of the Thetford Food Shelf, who, in fact, harks from White River Junction, and volunteers Pat Ware, Sherry Gouwens (secretary), Bob Hagan (president), Pat Pisano (vice president), Mark Sadoques, and Missy Krzal.

The volunteers are careful to ensure that a visit to the Food Shelf is a good experience. Some clients come not only to pick up food free of charge but also for social contact. It’s a place to find a sympathetic ear if the volunteers are not out flat providing assistance to the many who come through the door.

The work does not finish when that door closes at noon. There is an awful lot to coordinate behind the scenes. In addition to keeping on top of emails, the Food Shelf is required to keep a record of all the clients they serve, in particular those who are income-eligible for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) run by the USDA. Receipts for any donations to the Food Shelf are sent out to donors no matter how small the amount, because it is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, and donations are tax-deductible.  

Donations are the life blood of the Food Shelf, though they are not the only source of groceries. The Vermont Food Bank (VFB) provides major support, especially in the form of canned and otherwise non-perishable foods. The way it works is the Food Shelf pays to be a partner with VFB and may then purchase, at a discounted price, a monthly delivery of food. What can be ordered is not always predictable; it depends on what the VFB has received from its donors. These include major grocery chains like Hannafords, Shaw’s, Black River Produce,  and C & S Wholesale Grocers, as well as local producers like Cabot Creamery and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Each month Mark, Mary, and Jim McCracken (formerly of Willing Hands) unload the truck from VFB. In addition to purchases, the VFB gives the Food Shelf free food. The federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) also offers 3SquaresVT in which eligible clients receive money every month with which to buy food or discounted CSA shares from local farmers. Food Shelf volunteers ensure their clients are aware of this and other programs like VT Fresh that educates people on how to cook with fresh vegetables.

Grants are applied for every year from NARA Inc, a philanthropic organization that also funds the VFB. In addition VFB makes grant money available to the Food Shelf  through Vermonters Feeding Vermonters, a program to purchase high-quality local food directly from Vermont farmers and producers. It enables volunteers Pat Pisano and Sherry Gouwens to purchase vegetables from Honeyfield Farm and Cross Road Farm. Both farms also gave the Food Shelf credit to boost the Food Shelf’s funds. Beef is purchased from Niko Horster’s operation in Vershire. In addition, volunteer Pat Ware buys milk, butter, eggs, and some meat at Baker Grocery in E. Thetford to stock the Food Shelf refrigerator and freezer. Shopping runs are made to various Upper Valley stores, especially when there are special offers like 2-for-1 sales on cases of items like ready-to-eat soups, a popular item at the Food Shelf.

This is in addition to the many boxes of free produce and bread that are delivered on Tuesdays by Willing Hands, an organization that recovers food that would otherwise be wasted at farms, wholesalers, restaurants, and grocery stores. And there is continuous support from various community organizations. The community holds a yearly softball tournament and gives the proceeds to the Food Shelf. Thetford Academy’s culinary arts class made soup and sold it to raise a donation. In addition, the Elementary School organized the Hike for Hunger that brought in almost $1000 plus so many boxes of food that they were “stacked all over.” More donations come from the Strafford Lions Club’s food drive, the proceeds of which benefit the Food Shelf and the Thetford Baptist Church fundraiser that most recently brought in $3000. The Town is also a big supporter — in kind — providing the Food Shelf a home in the Town Hall basement with free heat, utilities, photocopying, and garbage pick-up. And don’t forget the many private individuals from the Upper Valley and beyond who make donations of cash and food that make up a “healthy chunk” of the budget.  Regarding food donations, only items with expiration dates in the current year are acceptable. Anything older simply has to be thrown away.  

Because the Food Shelf sees a cross-section of people from the five communities it serves — Thetford, Vershire, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Strafford — it has become the logical place for connecting to area social services. Twice a month Liz Carey, the National Council on Aging specialist from Senior Solutions, makes herself available at the Food Shelf to offer help from Senior Solutions to all who inquire. The volunteers set up a little desk of stacked milk crates next to the dog food shelf for Liz to work at. The Town Nurse, Sunny Martinson, is also very active at the Food Shelf and checks in frequently, and volunteer Pat Pisano is there to connect people with the Thetford Elder Network.

Clients who have no means of transportation may have their groceries delivered every other Thursday by Food Shelf volunteers Jody Biddle, Betsy Johnstone, and Kim Arsenault.

 “Thank You” notes crowd the bulletin board at the Food Shelf

Since COVID benefits expired there has been increased demand at the Food Shelf. It consistently serves between 40 and 50 households each month, with a spike to about 80 in both November and December when gift cards are offered. The Food Shelf is open from 10 am till noon, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and word gets around through community ListServs, the Town website, and word of mouth. While many towns in our region have a food shelf, they are not coordinated through an overarching umbrella organization. Each food shelf is a stand-alone effort, the product of the local community, the dedicated work of many volunteers, and a whole lot of networking. It truly takes a village (or two) to staff and run a food shelf.

Photo credit: Li Shen

Subscribe to Sidenote

Sign up now to get the latest stories right in your inbox.