As Brattleboro Town Food Service Director Ali West of Fresh Picks Cafe fielded phone calls from families throughout Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) to sign their children up for school meals in the early days of COVID-19 school closures, she was often heartbroken as people reached out to her. Many shared that they were in desperate situations and did not have enough food, not only for their children during the school day but also for their entire family.
"I wondered what could be done to meet the needs for families," thought Ali West. "The regular school meals programs were not enough to feed entire families. So I reached out to Food Connects for guidance."
Conor Floyd, Farm to School Manager at Food Connects, represents area schools at the Windham Region Hunger Council and has strong relationships with school meal programs, area food shelves, and the Vermont Foodbank.
On a Hunger Council call a couple of weeks into the crisis, Christine Colascione, of Foodworks, shared that she saw a rapid increase in need across the community. Zach Hebert, of the Vermont Foodbank, led the coordination efforts between food shelves and relayed that information to his colleagues and secured more resources for food relief in Windham County.
In Brattleboro, there is a strong network for anti-hunger organizations that provides relief to families. Organized through the Hunger Council, the network collaborates to best meet the growing food security needs of our community. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the group knew that they were not reaching all the families in need. This was particularly on the mind of Christine, who focused on creating more trauma-informed services at Foodworks after attending a Trauma and Food workshop led by Equity Solutions.
"Many people are needing help for the first time,” noted Christine. “Navigating the charitable food system can be difficult for many—either knowing who to call or the stigma associated with accessing help.”
On a Hunger Council call, Sheila Humphreys of Food Connects wondered about the needs that families were communicating with Ali, and whether these families were being served by Foodworks or if they were falling through the cracks. Out of those questions, an idea began to take shape. Could Foodworks and the WSESU meal program work together to determine which families were not already receiving regular food deliveries from Foodworks, and launch a new, collaborative program to deliver food to these families through the school meal program delivery system?
Within a week, a new “Food Team” was formed with staff from WSESU Food Service, Foodworks, Food Connects, and the Vermont Foodbank, and they quickly came up with a plan. Using Foodworks’ existing account with the Foodbank, and with additional grant funding supplied by the Foodbank, Christine launched a new delivery program to families, managed and distributed by Ali via the Academy School meal site. “We are so happy to be part of this collaboration with the schools because this way, many people who wouldn't otherwise be helped, are able to get the food they need” Christine remarked. “People are already familiar with the school system making it an easy access point, and using the busses is such an excellent and efficient way to deliver food."
Staff from Food Connects provided coordination and support services to launch this program, including muscle to move 4 pallets of shelf-stable food from the Foodworks truck into the school. Week 1 was a success! The Food Team met and refined delivery and ordering systems further, and decided to look for volunteers to help with the heavy lifting to get the food off the truck.
Conor reached out to Assistant Fire Chief, Leonard Howard, for support. Not only was Leonard on board but he brought the request to a town staff meeting. From this, a new partnership was born with the town, where staff from Brattleboro Fire, Police, Highway, and Recreation and Parks signed up for a weekly shift to unload the truck. On the second Wednesday of the program, town staff had the truck unloaded in record time!
As the program evolves, hiccups continue to occur, from working out the details of weekly distribution to communicating with families. But, the program is already providing much needed support to families. In a recent conversation with Ali, she mentioned that “I heard from one family that said receiving the boxes has been such a relief, especially as they have 5 kids at home and one of the parents had been laid off! Many more have expressed gratitude and appreciation to the counselors that they are in contact with.”
This story is not only uplifting but serves as a model for how to create successful community collaborations. So, how did it happen?
Start with existing connections. The Windham Region Hunger Council, a decade-long collaboration, actively served our community before the crisis hit. The group already established norms and relationships with one another, allowing for a seamless transition to remote collaboration and an immediate platform for broad information sharing.
Additionally, Food Connects had strong working relationships with Foodworks and the Foodbank—thanks to the community of practice group focused on trauma and nutrition which formed after the Equity Solutions training. This created a space for each organization to feel comfortable stepping into unknown territory as the new collaboration was formed.
Food Connects’ well-established Farm to School program supports WSESU schools and foodservice programs. Food Connects nurtured and developed those relationships to create strong partnerships with open lines of communication with the schools as well.
Identify key action teams. Large, regional collaborations are essential in spreading information and gaining a comprehensive understanding of the situation but they make quick action difficult. On the first Hunger Council response call, the group identified lead coordinators for the schools, food shelves, volunteers, and communications.
Through this structure, Conor pulled together a smaller group of essential organizations to address the need Ali experienced at the schools. While keeping the Hunger Council informed, this group could then act quickly to put a new set of systems in place and ensure the food got out quickly and efficiently.
Leverage existing resources. After identifying the problem and those best positioned to address it, the Food Team took stock of the resources at hand. The schools had the volunteers to pack the food and buses to deliver it. Whereas Foodworks had some additional ordering capacity via the Foodbank and a box truck to get the food to Academy School but lacked the home delivery infrastructure to cover an additional 130 families a week. With this information, the team created a new supply chain with the resources already at their disposal.
Think about sustainability. The charitable food system relies on community funding and volunteer support. It was crucial to utilize existing systems in new ways to be able to address this need. By capitalizing on Foodworks' relationship with the Foodbank and the school’s connection with families and delivery network, the group ensured that this wasn’t a 180° pivot, but a reimagining of the services each organization already provided.
Once there was proof of concept, the next thought was how to ensure this new program could exist for months into the future. The town’s on-going support unloading deliveries on Wednesday was the final piece to the puzzle and ensured the additional task didn’t fall to the district’s volunteers.
And what is the result of all this? A consistent source of additional food relief for 130 families in our community and more resilient organizational relationships for when the need arises again. This project is a model for the ways that community organizations can partner with schools and municipal staff to meet the needs of vulnerable populations in a time of crisis.
Food Connects is grateful of everyone who helped make this collaboration happen: Ali West and the incredible staff of Fresh Picks Cafe; Zach Hebert of the VT Foodbank; Christine Colascione and Ava Howard of Foodworks; Jon Sessions of Academy School; Leonard Howard of the Fire Department; the staff of the Fire Department, Police Department, Highway Department, and Recreation and Parks; and the Windham Region Hunger Council. It truly takes a village.