Before any of us had heard of COVID-19 or the phrase ‘social distancing’, one in 10 families in Vermont struggled to put food on the table.

As the pandemic tightened its grip, shutting down businesses or even closing them for good, the job losses and financial impacts that followed pushed that number to one in three families by May 2020, according to a University of Vermont study.

A third of all Vermont families.

Places like Feeding Chittenden, the Winooski Food Shelf, Aunt Dot’s Place and organizations around Chittenden County have been in a constant state of emergency ever since. Some have had to buy food to keep their shelves stocked. Others have simply had to endure empty shelves as food donations are given out nearly as fast as they arrive. Even federal food aid drives have run out, leaving long lines of cars on the Beltline in Burlington and at food box pick-up locations across the state – and many families empty-handed.

Turning Flowers Into Food

Since 2016, employees and dedicated garden volunteers at the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Fanny Allen campus have been raising money for the Colchester Food Shelf by selling flower bouquets and arrangements from the cutting garden, part of their Learning Garden program. Recent years raised as much as $1,600. By 2017, that effort expanded into a food drive that collected more than 800 pounds of donations. Then, in 2019, the Fanny Allen food drives expanded to include UVM Medical Center’s main campus, combining to raise more than 1,600 pounds of food donated to Chittenden County food shelves.

But in 2020, organizers wanted to do better than that.

“Everybody feels the same,” says Lisa Hoare, garden educator at the UVM Medical Center. “We all want to help, it’s the least we can do.”

Hoare is co-coordinator for food drive efforts along with Andrea Rocco of Nutrition Services. Director of Nutrition Services Diane Imrie and her team support the food drive effort and even scheduled it into their work day. Along with a small army of volunteers, they plowed into 2020 with a mission: do more.

By the fall, volunteers at both sites along with a handful of UVM Medical Center office locations in South Burlington collected more than 2,600 pounds of food. The drive also expanded deliveries to food shelves, from Williston to Essex to Hinesburg and more.

The COVID-19 Shutdown

Although last year’s food drive efforts were the most successful so far, those efforts were threatened due to COVID-19 health and safety precautions. The food drive had to shut down for a short time, just when people needed it most.

That’s when Warren Mills, RN, a nurse with Patient Placement, stepped up… actually, drove up, with a big truck.

“Everybody is acutely aware of what is going on,” says Mills. “People here are very compassionate and want to help out any way they can.”

For Mills, that meant driving up to a loading dock at UVM Medical Center and packing it from front to back, floor to ceiling.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” he says, describing a Saturday morning in Winooski, driving up to a line of people with empty bags and boxes who had gotten in line hours before the food shelf opened. Mills says the line that morning stretched around the block. On another morning, the line outside Feeding Chittenden in Burlington’s Old North End was no different.

“People were so happy to see you bringing in food,” Mills says, “I can’t imagine the emotional health of someone who is going through that.”

By the fall, Amy Cohen, director of Patient and Family Experience, found a safe space to re-establish a food collection hub at the front of the hospital which helped increase awareness and donations.

Paying It Forward

For Andrea Rocco, helping others is personal.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that food insecurity can have a face that many wouldn’t recognize, that it can happen to anyone. As someone who has experienced food insecurity in the past, Rocco feels a responsibility to pay it forward and support the community that was there for her.

“I am a strong believer in Vermonters helping Vermonters,” she says.

This year, part of the UVM Medical Center food drive’s mission is to touch as many communities as possible, large and small. That includes pockets of the county often overlooked when it comes to food shelves. Kristine Buck, program coordinator of the Frymoyer Community Health Center, supported the food drive efforts after they expanded to the main campus. She suggested reaching out to the most northern town in Chittenden County.

A lot of times Milton is forgotten, it’s nice that they reached out,” says Brenda Tourangeau, Learning Together coordinator at the Milton Family Community Center.

When Tourangeau was contacted by Hoare, she says she was a little shocked. Not many large organizations think of the Milton non-profit’s food shelf. Although donations were strong in 2020, Tourangeau says that support from UVM Medical center in the coming year is welcome relief for an organization accustomed to ebbs and flows in donations.

“I know when they are coming and I can rely on that,” she says.

Rocco wants to see another 1,000-pound increase for 2021 and to continue that rate of increase for years to come, a sentiment echoed by other volunteers. Mills dreams of every office and clinic across the UVM Medical Center donating at some point, joking that if every employee chipped in just one thing, he’d need to get a much, much bigger truck.

To find out more about how you can help University of Vermont Medical Center food drive efforts, contact Lisa Hoare by email: Lisa.Hoare@uvmhealth.org or call 802-847-3833.

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