CAPA, Institutional News, Local Impact

$20,000 Awarded to Local Organizations Addressing Food Insecurity in Bennington County

 Bennington College has awarded a total of $20,000 in grants to local organizations to implement and support seven community-proposed initiatives that explore and expand food systems in Bennington county.  

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation logo

Project proposals from the Bennington Community Garden; Bennington Housing Authority; Meals on Wheels of Bennington County; Merck Forest, Northshire Grown Direct, and Southshire Grown Direct; Paran Recreations; Shires Housing; and Sunrise Family Resource Center were selected among applications from community members to Bennington College’s Community Resource and Strategy Fund. This fund supports catalyzing, collaborative projects that further understanding of local food systems and leverage innovative solutions to address food insecurity in Bennington County

This is the second year the Community Resource and Strategy Fund has supported local initiatives, with an increase of both funding and the number of projects supported. Last year, three grants of $5,000 each were awarded to Willy’s Variety Store, Shires Housing, and Project Against Violent Encounters (PAVE). Read more about their projects.

The Community Resource and Strategy Fund is made possible by the College’s $1 million, three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to collaboratively explore and address the systemic causes of food insecurity in Bennington County. Applications for the next cycle of the Community Resource and Strategy Fund will be accepted beginning in October 2021.

“We are pleased that we were able to support such important projects from community organizations in Bennington during the challenging time of this pandemic,” said Susan Sgorbati, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. “Food insecurity continues to grow and demands a response from all of us to look out for our neighbors and find sustainable ways to maintain the health and well-being of our community.”

Applegate Community Health Empowerment Initiative—Part 2

Three years ago, Bennington County’s Shires Housing/Support and Services at Home (SASH) began offering cooking classes to the limited-income residents of Shires Housing. These classes help residents overcome the dozens of potential impediments that may make cooking healthy meals unrealistic or downright daunting.

Shires Housing/SASH has continued refining their healthy cooking initiatives, most recently offering canning and preserving workshops to help residents save fresh food for later use.

This Community Resource and Strategy grant will further expand these offerings to include gardening and foraging workshops to teach participants to grow or find free healthy food, while also teaching the importance of nutritional foods and their direct correlation to health outcomes. 

Capitalizing on existing partnerships, this project will collaborate with several local organizations. The Vermont Foodbank will supply produce for workshops through SASH monthly food drops at Applegate Housing, the DREAM Program will ensure that food prep and workshops benefit youth in need, the Robert Frost Stone House Museum at Bennington College will contribute to trainings and fresh fruit and herb offerings, and the Vermont Department of Health will offer workshops to WIC recipients to fill a nutritional information requirement.

This project will be led by Becky Arbella, Shires Housing/SASH Implementation Manager; along with Erin McKenny, Director of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum at Bennington College; Stephanie McCrea at the Vermont Department of Health WIC; and collaboration from Bennington College students.

Bennington Community Garden: Demonstration Sites and “Help Yourself” Stand

At the downtown Bennington Recreation Center, the 25-plot Bennington Community Garden (BCG) is an important community resource that provides gardening space to residents who are unable to garden at their own homes. Unfortunately, each year, the BCG is affected by theft, which likely stems from an unmet need for food.

To cut down on theft, a Community Resource and Strategy grant will establish a free “Help Yourself” stand of produce from the community garden. The grant will also expand the BCG’s gardening demonstrations and educational workshops, which will teach residents how to sustainably grow their own food.

For this project, the BCG will collaborate with the Town of Bennington on infrastructure projects, the Bennington County Chapters of Master Gardeners and Master Composters for educational initiatives, Bennington County Head Start for plot maintenance and education, and the Bennington Country Community garden volunteers.

This project will be led by Megan Herrington, Public Health Services District Director at Vermont Department of Health; along with Garden Operations volunteers Roxy Iskowitz and Bobby Davis.

GIFT: Gardening is Family Tradition

Eating habits and attitudes toward food often are influenced by family members. For many families, accessing healthy food is difficult, and making home cooked meals isn’t part of a family’s routine. 

With this Community Resource and Strategy Grant, the Bennington Housing Authority aims to shift the culture around home cooked meals, while bringing families together in a lasting bond. For families who begin a tradition of growing, cooking, and eating healthy foods together, generational food insecurity can eventually be diminished.

This grant will be used to offer tenants at Willowbrook and Beech Court Housing Projects healthy recipes, access to porch gardening containers in which to grow foods, and the opportunity to create a family memory recipe book that includes photos, comments, and recipe reviews by other family members.

This project will be led by Mary Gerisch, Compliance Specialist at the Bennington Housing Authority, in collaboration with the Bennington Housing Authority and Bennington Opportunities for Tenants, the tenant’s c3 organization; the DREAM Project; Bennington College; and Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services (GBICS).

Freezer Frenzy for MOW

Meals on Wheels (MOW) of Bennington County prepares and delivers more than 300 meals per day to older adult Vermonters and people living with disabilities—a need that has increased due to COVID-19. 

Though their own storage space is limited, MOW works to provide both frozen and hot meals to their clients. As a short-term stopgap, MOW initially solicited additional freezers from community members. Through a Community Resource and Strategy Grant, MOW will purchase two freezers from B&G Restaurant Supply to better fit their long-term needs. 

MOW is an essential part of their clients’ day. With these freezers, MOW will be able to store frozen meals at their facility, which will later be delivered by staff or volunteers in the Bennington County area. In addition to delivering meals, MOW conducts wellness checks on their clients, delivers their mail, brings them books to read, and helps feed their animals.

This project will be led by Ilsa Svoboda, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Bennington County. 

Provision Processing at Lake Paran

At Lake Paran Recreation, which provides healthy outdoor fun to nature lovers, a Community Resource and Strategy Grant will address the intersection of families, economic security, and food access in the Bennington community by providing opportunities to learn about food access and sustainability through food processing.

The project’s goal is to complete the circle of food sustainability: guiding program participants through all stages of growing, harvesting, preparing, preserving, and sharing food. The organization will host educational events that will teach children how to process and store foods, such as jams and salsas, grown from local gardens and our own indigenous Three Sisters Garden.

As part of the grant, Paran Recreation will rent out its affordable licensed commercial kitchen to make food-based products for sale—creating wider opportunities for local food entrepreneurs.

This project will be led by Camille Kauffman, AmeriCorps VISTA, and Alisa Del Tufo, Paran Recreations Board Chair. 

North and South Shires Grown: Direct

Northshire Grown: Direct (NG:D) is a volunteer-led direct-to-consumer “bundled CSA” platform launched to help area farms and food businesses recoup lost revenues due to COVID-19.

By engaging with regional farms and producers, this community project has helped stabilize Bennington County’s food economy through steady purchasing by several hundred area customers. NG:D customers have collectively generated an impactful food distribution program, Northshire Neighbors in Need, which deploys boxes of this locally sourced food to needy families throughout the region with the assistance of community connectors in a local church, food pantry, and elementary school.

Through the Community Resource and Strategy Grant, NG:D will replicate this program to launch in the greater Bennington area in summer 2021. This service will become Southshire Grown: Direct (SG:D) and Southshire Neighbors in Need for food insecure families. The projects will be co-managed in Bennington County’s two “shires” to amass research and business modeling to capitalize a regional social enterprise. 

Aggregated produce bags will provide a convenient, safe method to distribute a variety of nutritious local food, while providing a stable income to farmers. SG:D will provide an additional market channel to Bennington area producers, a convenient service to local households and buyers, and a supplement to current food shelf initiatives by supplying high-quality foods.

This project will be led by Liz Ruffa, Advancement Director of Merck Forest & Farmland Center and Project Director for Northshire Grown: Direct, and Katy Crumley, District Manager  of Bennington County Conservation District.

Collaborators include Merck Forest and Farmland Center, principal organizers of Northshire Grown: Direct (Maria Reade, Edible VT and Someday Farm; Mara Hearst, Levy Lamb; Heidi Lynn, Grateful Hearts) will partner with Bennington County Conservation District as the Southshire Grown: Direct project lead. Other partners will include the 40+ farmers and area businesses who are part of NG:D “bundled CSA” program. 

Sunrise Food Pantry

Each year, Sunrise Family Resource Center assists over 1,200 Bennington County families as they work toward greater independence and resilience, and overcome obstacles such as poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Sunrise aims to strengthen families, and build healthy bodies and minds with quality nutrition.

To encourage food security among Sunrise’s families, this Community Resource and Strategy Grant will be used to establish a Sunrise Food Pantry. The grant will help to purchase shelving for dry goods, a refrigerator, and freezer for fresh and frozen items. 

The Sunrise Food Pantry will ensure food availability for families from 8:30 am - 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday, and on weekends by appointment.

This project will be led by Denise Main, Executive Director of Sunrise Family Resource Center, with support from Lori Pinsonneault, VT Parent Child Center Coordinator. Partners will include Grateful Hearts and the Vermont Food Bank.

About Food Insecurity in Bennington County

Food insecurity–an inability to access enough healthy food to meet basic needs because of financial constraints–is a serious problem across the state of Vermont, and particularly in the Bennington region.

Hunger Free Vermont reports that one in ten Vermonters, and 15% of children under 18, live in food insecure households. These numbers are higher in Bennington County, where nearly 14% of the population lives at or below the poverty line, and 85% of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Vermont Foodbank network partners provide food to 12.6% of all residents of Bennington County, over half of whom report having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities.

Addressing food insecurity in Bennington County involves overcoming challenges specific to life in a rural community, including fewer employment opportunities that provide a living wage; a lack of health insurance; the threatened erosion of government assistance programs for food, home heating, and healthcare; a lack of reliable public transportation, making it difficult to access nutritious food; and isolation, resulting in loneliness and disengagement, with substance abuse playing an increasing role. 

These stressors of poverty can be accompanied by a lack of knowledge about health and nutrition, as well as limited cooking skills, resulting in poor diet. These “social determinants of health” have a significantly negative impact on physical and mental health.