MARK E. RONDEAU
BENNINGTON -- The Kitchen Cupboard Food pantry closed down for a week in September for renovations and the installation of kitchen equipment, as part of a $15,000 improvement project.
"We closed down so that we could do some renovations and get our new kitchen put in here. So we put in new flooring from the kitchen all the way back to the back of the building, giving it a facelift and a painting and then we're going to get appliances and commercial sinks and all that kind of stuff so we can start doing cooking and nutrition classes over there," said Sue Andrews, executive director of Greater Bennington Community Services Inc. (CBICS), parent organization of the Kitchen Cupboard.
Cooking and nutrition classes now will be offered at the facility, which is at the corner of Gage and Bradford Streets. The cooking curriculum offered is known as Cooking for Life or The Learning Kitchen. It consists of small groups of five to eight participants, a few volunteers and a chef, she said.
"It's a six-week class and each week you purchase all the groceries to make a particular meal and the recipe's there, and you all sit there and cook the meal together and sit down and eat it together, which is the part that I really like about it," Andrews said. "You know it's the intentionality of those relationships that I think it really important. And the participants then go home with a bag of groceries and the recipes and they have everything they need to replicate the meal at home."
At the class the following week, participants discuss how the meal went, including problems and how the family liked the food. "And it can just segue into so many interesting things, like you know, how do you introduce new foods to your children, all that kind of thing," she said. "The nice thing is that people get an opportunity to learn, but then they also get this bag of groceries each week for six weeks to take home, and that's kind of an incentive to follow through on it."
The renovation and appliances came in part from a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
"It's called Community Facilities Money, and it requires that you leverage other money. So basically they give a 30 percent match to money that we can make available," Andrews said. "So GBICS is putting some of the money forward; some of it we've requested from other funders. But basically the project itself ends up being sort of a $15,000 project, and about $5,000 of that is coming from the USDA."
A lion's share of the work on the project has come through volunteers, such as volunteers from Curves women's fitness of Bennington on the day Andrews was interviewed for this article.
"They came in and the first thing they did was defrost and scrub out 14 freezers/refrigerators. They did that, they painted the kitchen, they moved more boxes of food," she said. "They've just been incredible. They painted the kitchen, the bathroom. We're just going to town over there."
The Kitchen Cupboard has been open since April 2011. In the past year, it has served 1,100 families during two sessions per week, mostly from Bennington. "We have between 10 and 20 new families every week. People just keep coming and coming. I don't know whether these are folks who are new to the area or if they're new to finding us. It's so hard to tell."
The pantry does not do means testing. "We do what are considered best practices by the Vermont Food Bank, which is to just say that anybody who comes and says they're hungry can get food," she said.
GBICS recently sent out its annual fundraising letter for its Food and Fuel Fund, which includes The Kitchen Cupboard.
"Our annual fundraising letter just went out this past week, and we usually get a good response from that," Andrews said. "But basically our fundraising list is people who have given to us before, so we're certainly interested in reaching other members of the public. I would want to remind people that cash goes a lot further than donations of food.
"The example I always use is you can spend a dollar on a can of beans or you can give us a dollar and we can get 20 cans of beans from the food pantry from the same dollar," she said. "And in terms of getting the message out, it's just there's a huge need out there. We're serving one in every four families in Bennington. You know, it's a tough time."
The total annual GBICS budget, including the Bennington Free Clinic, for this year is $163,000. The total for the Food and Fuel Fund/Kitchen Cupboard is $85,000. (The fundraising appeal for the Free Clinic goes out in December).
"The neat thing about the food and fuel fund is virtually all the money comes from our local community, and while there are some people who can provide big pieces of money we get a lot of really small donations," Andrews said. "Last year we had this family that sent me $5 every month. You can tell that they made a decision to do that, just a wonderful thing."
Andrews noted a sign of continuing hard times for many.
"One of the things that I have really noticed this summer in addition to the Kitchen Cupboard doing just a huge business is that our Food and Fuel Fund, which is a discretionary fund that helps people with food and housing and utilities and that kind of thing, has not had any kind of a break," she said. "Usually during the summer, it goes down almost to zip. The first year that I did the fund, I had three requests for the whole summer. This summer it hasn't stopped. We're filling 15 or so requests every single week for help, especially electric."
Due to varied factors, food banks around the country have recently had less food available. This is true in Vermont, too.
"The Vermont Food Bank has the same issue, the selection and the volume of the food is way down. The explanation that I've gotten from the food bank is that as the general economy has contracted there's been a lot of belt tightening and farmers aren't growing as much," she said. "The commercial people who make prepared food stuffs aren't making as much. And there's just not as much food available to go into the reclaimed and surplus food (supply)."
Meat availability has been one of the things that has suffered the most.
"The thing I'd say more than anything that's been affected is client choice, particularly around meat availability. Typically we have carried meats from the food bank. Those have been in fairly short supply all summer, so we haven't been having as much meat. Right now it seems to be bouncing back a little bit," she said. "Rumor has it that because of the drought that an awful lot of meat is going to come on the market, surplus market, for the next couple of months because they're going to be culling the herds of cattle."
But there has been no shortage of vegetables. Andrews and her board has put a strong emphasis from the start on acquiring, and to some extent growing, local produce, and this has paid off with a steady supply each week.
"Well, the timing it couldn't have been better for us in that as the food bank started to have less food, we moved into the local growing season," she said. "So we've actually, ironically, had more food to give out because we're in the middle of the summer. I get almost a ton of food a week from local farmers that we're giving out. It's just amazing. It's largely organic, very high-end produce."