A federally funded program that distributed food to thousands of people at state airports across Vermont over the past two months will be entering a new phase.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, kicked off May 15. The Vermont Foodbank, Vermont Agency of Transportation, Vermont National Guard, and the Abbey Group worked to distribute produce, dairy products, and chicken to people left hungry by the COVID-19 pandemic.

First-come-first-served lines of cars at state airports will be a thing of the past, replaced by more controlled, regular distributions, said Nicole Whalen, director of communications and public affairs at the Vermont Foodbank.

“We’re launching July 6 and there are going to be a variety of ways we’re getting the food out,” she said on Thursday. “We’re working closely with the state of Vermont and with the Abbey Group and the National Guard to come up with the best way to do this to really make sure we’re providing a dignified experience for people coming to get food.

“We learned a lot during those first distributions at the airports when we had miles of cars lining up and people were having to wait long periods of time, that is not the standard we hold ourselves to as far as the experience for people we’re providing for.”

People now have to sign up ahead of time, said Whalen. They can go online at bit.ly/0703Food to sign up. Folks are asked to complete a five-question survey, which is not aimed at determining eligibility, but insures there will be enough food on hand for those who show up.

Whalen said people were being asked to register for the last few airport events, and it worked well.

“That has reduced wait times and ensures people don’t come and get turned away,” she said. “So for this stage of the program, we’re leaning into that model.”

In Rutland, distributions will be held at the Spartan Arena every Tuesday beginning at 10 a.m. The deadline for registration is 4 p.m. the day before an event. This will go on through August, said Whalen.

Those who come will also be told about other food assistance programs.

“We know a lot of people are experiencing food insecurity for the first time ever and may not know where to turn,” said Whalen.

The USDA is funding this, she said. The program was created to give farmers a place to sell what they make, as measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 saw their biggest customers, restaurants, schools and the like closed. Whalen said the Abbey Group was awarded a contract to supply the food for the first two months and was likewise awarded the bid for this coming two-month stint.

Whalen said initially there was little time to plan the distributions, about one week from the time the contract was awarded and the first distributions. Now that it’s later in the season, more local farms will have food to sell to the program.

“It’s a great program for the Vermont economy and it’s getting so much good food to the people who need it,” she said. “The contract we have for July and August is going to bring 3,276,000 pounds of food, which is a massive amount of food.

“To put that in perspective, during non-COVID times the Foodbank typically distributes about 1 million pounds of food a month, so this is like setting up an entire auxiliary Foodbank operation.”

Since the pandemic hit, food insecurity in Vermont has increased by 46%, she said, surpassing what was seen during the Great Recession.

Whalen said Vermont Foodbank and other hunger advocates are calling on Congress to further fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, called 3SquaresVT in Vermont. Given the logistics required to implement the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, 3SquaresVT is much simpler and places more control in the hands of people getting food.

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