BURLINGTON — Every Friday morning an array of vans, cars and trucks from local organizations like Digger’s Mirth Collective Farm and Skinny Pancake roll into the parking lot of the Janet S. Munt Family Room.
Digger’s Mirth, located on the Intervale, drops off 55 shares of about $30 to $40 worth of local produce while area restaurant group Skinny Pancake delivers single-packed frozen meals. The produce and meals are later packed into crates and delivered to 120 families, many of which are members of Somali and Nepalese communities in Burlington.
“To a passerby it probably seems very chaotic. There is a lot of inner communication that happens and it’s beyond just filling up boxes and sending them out,” Family Room executive director Josh Miller said. “We have to remember that one family needs size 5 diapers because their kid has grown, or we have to pack platters of fruit salad for families who have grandparents in their homes.”
This recent initiative to distribute food to families in need reflects a marked change for the Family Room since the coronavirus pandemic hit in early spring.
The organization, which for more than 30 years has provided such services as parenting classes and family support, has shifted its focus to making home deliveries — primarily of food but also of diapers, hand sanitizer, masks, informational fliers with pesticide warnings for fishing communities, and even play kits to stimulate childrens’ education remotely.
“When we had to basically close our doors to drop-in programming, we called all our families to check in about how they were doing, and we found out that one of their biggest concerns was food,” Miller said.
Home delivery of food, especially of local and culturally familiar produce, has been made possible through a $27,400 grant awarded in May by the city of Burlington to Vermont Foodbank.
“With the Old North End Farmers Market not happening this year, many families in the neighborhood were unable to access local food that they are familiar with and usually purchase from area farms,” said Andrea Solazzo, agriculture and community outreach manager at Vermont Foodbank. As a result of increasing food insecurity rates related to Covid-19, the organization sought the grant “to purchase shares of local, culturally responsive produce from Digger’s Mirth Farm.”
The food is then distributed to 55 New American families through what is called the Family Share Program.
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Apart from the grant, local stores and restaurants including Hannafords, Costco, City Market and August First have donated packed and frozen single meals, enabling the Family Room to make 120 weekly deliveries.
The grant will run until November, at which point Vermont Foodbank will continue funding the Family Share Program from November to March. It will purchase produce from the Intervale Community Farm Cooperative rather than Digger’s Mirth, as the former has access to a larger variation of winter produce. Family Room will continue home deliveries of the shares as well.
“Transportation and food security are completely intertwined,” Solazzo said. “And a lot of New American families are quite large and it’s really a big thing to go to a food shelter or pantry with five or six little kids.”
In the spring, Vermont Foodbank teamed up on a survey of local residents with Pablo Bose, associate professor of geography at the University of Vermont. Working with translators, they interviewed Somali and Nepali families to gauge if they were receiving the kind of foods to which they had been accustomed. Where appropriate, their feedback was then used to modify the content of the food shares.
“The Nepali families are getting bitter melons, and the Somali families are getting more collard greens, and hot peppers and cilantro,” Solazzo said. These are “foods that they are expressing they want to eat but don’t always have access to.”
Solazzo and Bose emphasize that producing more shares not only benefit New Americans but also the farmers who are themselves struggling with a rapidly changing market.
“Digger’s Mirth quickly pivoted their work to packing more shares for these 55 families,” Solazzo said. “They’re generating income for themselves too, with less selling to so many different restaurants and their market changing after the pandemic.”
Bose, a longtime researcher of environmental advocacy and migration, said that providing fresh and healthy food to the most vulnerable families has an impact on the entire Burlington community, including supporting farmers’ rights and fair market practices.
“It’s not just about getting food out there,” he said. “How do you get fresh foods while also making sure farmers are getting a decent amount of money? Are you getting fresh nutritious foods out to people? These are big questions that go across multiple communities and are the ones that people ask to address food deserts.”
Bose said he expects to conclude the surveys in mid-October, but preliminary results show that at the outset of the pandemic, respondents had less access to culturally familiar foods. However, there are now indications of an improving match between what they like to eat and what they’ve been receiving from the newer vegetable shares.
“Respondents also indicate a significant knowledge that having access to fresh, healthy foods is an important part of remaining healthy long-term as well through the pandemic,” Bose said. “This is at least as important as cost and affordability to respondents.”
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