Bennington College works with community to fight food insecurity

Liza Reif and Mary Ellen Devlin, sisters and co-proprietors of Willy's Variety Store on Gage Street in Bennington, say that the grant will help them provide healthier food options for their customers.

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BENNINGTON — With one in ten Vermonters facing food insecurity, many local organizations and businesses see opportunities to help.

Bennington College has awarded Willy's Variety Store, Shires Housing and Project Against Violent Encounters (PAVE) $5,000 each for their proposals for projects that explore and expand food systems in Bennington County, the college has announced.

Food insecurity is broadly defined as the household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

The funds will support things like a reach-in cooler at Willy's Variety, cooking programs at Applegate Apartments and building a garden at one of PAVE's domestic violence shelters.

"I thought they all had really important objectives," said Susan Sgorbati, director of the college's Center for the Advancement of Public Action, when asked what stood out to her about the chosen projects. "They were really addressing food insecurity in different ways, and their objectives were clear and important. [This is an] opportunity for a college to work with their local community on an urgent problem together."

Hunger Free Vermont reports that 59,882 people — 10 percent of Vermonters — live in food insecure households, meaning they don't have regular access to nutritious food.

The funding awarded to Willy's, Shires Housing and PAVE comes from the college's Community Resource and Strategy Fund, which was made possible by the college's $1 million, three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to collaboratively explore and address the causes of food insecurity in Bennington County.

There will be three rounds of funding from the Community Resource and Strategy Fund, each with about $15,000 total, Sgorbati said.

Applications for the next cycle of the Community Resource and Strategy Fund money will be accepted starting Sept. 15.

Each selected applicant in this round was awarded the full amount they had requested, Sgorbati said. "We were really pleased; we were able to fully fund everyone," she said.

Willy's Variety Store

At Willy's, grant funding will supply materials for store improvement, including a reach-in cooler, produce display racks, reusable bags and collapsible grocery carts.

"This is going to give more options, and it seemed like a win-win," said Mary Ellen Devlin, whose father owns the store.

The reach-in cooler will provide more options for fresh produce — things like grab-and-go fruit salads, added Liza Reif, Devlin's sister.

"Just a way for customers within walking distance to get healthier options," she said. Namely, the funds will provide the infrastructure for the store to carry more produce.

Local residents with limited transportation often shop at grocery stores near their homes, but small groceries often cannot carry the inventory to meet a household's food needs without additional infrastructure, the college has said.

Willy's is one of few locations on its side of town for groceries, Reif said, and is the only store in that area that accepts the Federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, she said.

Reif said the changes at Willy's will most likely be in place in late spring or early summer.

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Shires Housing

With impediments like socioeconomic class, geography and the cost of food options, cooking healthy meals can be unrealistic or even daunting to the limited-income residents of Shires Housing, according to the college.

The grant funding to Shires Housing will support the Applegate Community Health Empowerment Initiative, helping community members plan and cook meals in a social environment by providing space, equipment and support for food preparation.

"I am ridiculously excited for this grant," said Becky Arbella, implementation manager and community specialist at Shires Housing.

The grant will help to purchase equipment and things like seeds and plants, and get the gardens at Applegate Apartments "bigger and better," she said.

Arbella said she also hopes to use the grant for canning and sealing products, with the goal of teaching people how to can, so they can save food healthfully.

The money will also help to start up gardening classes, which were not offered last year due to lack of funding, and amplify cooking classes, Arbella said.

"We're going to stretch every penny we can out of it," she said of the grant.


Clients of PAVE are often faced with loss of income and/or support from their partner, due to the violence they are fleeing, said Nadia Lucchin, executive director of PAVE.

Some do not have their own vehicle and rely on public transportation or walking, limiting their visits to the grocery store and making produce a prohibitive option due to the expense and shorter shelf life. Often the easiest, most convenient options are unhealthy, packaged foods, she said.

The funding will support PAVE in building a garden at one of its domestic violence shelters, which will serve as a food education tool for shelter residents, a space to hold communal dinners and a workshop for Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services' (GBICS)' Food Fit programs.

The project also aims to influence lifelong nutritional habits and create a healing space to facilitate recovery from trauma.

"This grant is a gift for PAVE and the shelter residents of PAVE," Lucchin said. "In the advocacy world, we often use the phrase `planting seeds' to describe the work that we do; we don't always see the impact of the assistance we provide, but hope that it will allow the individual to blossom. The garden, a place of refuge, as well abundance and life, will affect residents' well-being in myriad ways, allowing them to move forward with new skills and a greater awareness of how food is grown and its impact on the body and mind."

Tilling, building raised beds and fencing for the garden will begin in April, Lucchin said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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