Kellie Ettori remembers when the gravity of the pandemic hit home.
She was sitting in her car, waiting in line at a Vermont Foodbank food distribution event at the Diamond Run Mall in Rutland Town last March. She waited for almost two hours that day amid a sea of other cars, each waiting its turn to receive a package of fresh produce.
She’d seen news reports from other parts of the country, with cars lined up on highways waiting to get food, but it felt different to see it here.
“That was very moving,” she said. “Seeing how many people were there like that at the beginning of the pandemic, it was scary. It was eye opening to me,” Ettori said.
The event was part of the Foodbank’s VeggieVanGo program, a mobile food pantry launched in 2013 that partners with local hospitals and schools to bring healthy food to families without any eligibility requirements.
While food insecurity is familiar to some Vermonters, the pandemic has seen a sharp increase in need as those laid off from their jobs or working reduced hours have found themselves looking for food assistance for the first time ever.
And since the pandemic began, VeggieVanGo has emerged as a valuable resource for those families by providing fresh produce at more than a dozen different locations in nine counties across the state.
According to the Vermont Foodbank, one in three Vermont households have experienced food insecurity at some point since March of last year. Prior to the pandemic, it was one in 10.
“More than 50% of people in Vermont have experienced job loss or disruption during the pandemic,” said Rachel Worthington, manager of food access programs for Vermont Foodbank. “A lot of people coming to VeggieVanGo are new to food assistance. Because we don’t ask questions, we tend to be a starting point for many families who are in need of food.”
Since last March, Worthington said an average of 5,551 families have been served each month at 19 separate VeggieVanGo events around the state. That’s up from a pre-pandemic average of 3,295 families per month.
Over that period, the Foodbank has distributed about 2.3 million pounds of food, more than double the amount of produce given out the previous year.
Typically, VeggieVanGo events function like an open-air farmers market where people can select their own produce while checking out cooking demonstrations and receiving recipe tips. However, due to pandemic health and safety precautions, it has evolved into a drive-thru distribution event where families can pick up pre-packaged boxes of food.
“The whole premise of the program is to create a dignified, comfortable space for community members to come and get free produce,” Worthington said.
In the past year in Rutland County, roughly four monthly events have been staged at locations in Rutland and Brandon. Larger events have been staged at locations such as Rutland Regional Medical Center, the Vermont State Fairgrounds and the Diamond Run Mall. Altogether, the events are serving around 500 households each month — more than double pre-pandemic levels, said Worthington.
Ettori, a mother of two who lives in Rutland, is familiar with VeggieVanGo. Prior to the pandemic, she occasionally attended events when they were held at Northwest Primary School. During the pandemic, she once again turned to the program for herself, as well as to pick up food for families who could not make it there on their own.
She praised program volunteers, calling them “amazing” and said the events have a welcoming, community atmosphere that eases any reluctance people might have with accepting free food.
“It is very comfortable and connected, like you feel a part of something,” she said. “I think that’s important. That’s a layer of help, just that feeling of someone being kind.”
Prior to the pandemic, Ettori, who teaches yoga at Rutland Free Library, invited Kimberly Williams, associate manager of community engagement for Vermont Foodbank, to speak about VeggieVanGo at her classes. She noted Williams’ last visit was in early March of last year, just before the state began shutting down.
Ettori credited Williams for being so engaged and taking the time to answer people’s questions, of which there were many, saying that her knowledge of how the Foodbank could assist people put everyone at ease.
“I think just knowing it’s there is really important,” she said.
But while the pandemic, might be reaching its end thanks to widespread access to vaccinations, the need for food will remain, according to Worthington. She noted the Foodbank has increased its operations by 50% since the start of the pandemic and doesn’t expect to let up anytime soon.
“We’re anticipating that elevated level of need in Vermont is going to continue for about 12 to 24 months,” she said. “So coming with that anticipation, we’re making sure that we’re prepared not only with the VeggieVanGo program, but with our other programs, to meet that need as best as we can.”
VeggieVanGo has also evolved to include a “drop-and-go” component which delivers bulk packages of food to mutual aid organizations around the state that then distribute to their constituents, including families living in rural areas.
With that ongoing need for food comes a need for more volunteers to help staff distribution events.
“As we increase the number of sites and increase the frequency of distributions, there’s an increased need for volunteers and that can be a struggle,” said Melissa Disorda, VeggieVanGo program coordinator for Rutland County. “We didn’t think COVID would be hitting us a year later and we’d still be faced with that need, so volunteers are starting to get burned out or not as available to come as frequently.”
Disorda and Worthington expressed gratitude for the “fantastic group of core volunteers” that have come out to help over the past year.
Worthington welcomed new volunteers and encouraged people to get involved in their local mutual aid groups.
“I think that’s what’s been so powerful during this pandemic is just seeing how communities are collaborating with each other and being able to leverage those relationships in order to continue surviving through a pandemic,” she said.
To volunteer or find more about VeggieVanGo and other Vermont Foodbank services, visit vtfoodbank.org.