CommUNITY Meals looks for community members to help

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CommUNITY Meals looks for community members to help

A recent meal at the church

A recent meal at the church

Victoria Greenia

A recent meal at the church

Victoria Greenia

Victoria Greenia

A recent meal at the church

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Roasted herb chicken, mashed potatoes with the skin still in it, a tossed salad with romaine, tomatoes, and sliced red onions, bread and butter; the food was spread over two tables, and behind the silverware was a clear, pretzel container half-filled with crumpled dollar bills. Donations were optional. Seconds allowed.

 Lunch was served on white porcelain plates and the meal could have belonged to any family restaurant. Serving the nutrition-packed meal were two missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and youth from Laraway Youth & Family Services. The same handful of people would later also scrape leftovers off plates, wash dishes, and wipe clean tables at the end.

 People began trickling in around 11:30 on March 26; a well-dressed woman, hair perfectly done, held her toddler’s hand as they got take-out in a disposable container. Older men in checkered shirts and suspenders stood next to women of the same age in soft flowered shirts, waiting patiently in line.

 One older man joked that coming to the meal was better than his cooking and as a bonus he didn’t have to do dishes afterwards.

 By quarter of noon the small dining area was becoming crowded, mostly with older folks, but also a few excited children who ran across the laminated floor to greet friends. White walls and bright lights added a cheery, if artificial, aspect and rural Vermont residents basked in the room’s warm atmosphere, chatting with their neighbor as they ate.

 Some brought their own friends to the lunch. Frank Rajki was one of those diners, sitting in the corner of the room with two other men.

  “There are a lot of people that need this. It’s good, too. Nice and warm.” As he spoke he began to point around the room at various diners, “There’s a woman over there I haven’t seen in ten years and she came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I know you!’ I know that guy over there… I know Rick, over there. Yeah, people know each other. There are beautiful little children here, everybody’s talking, happy, and eating a good meal out of the cold; it’s great.”

 Hunger is an issue in Lamoille County, according to Rick Aupperlee, Laraway’s School to Work Coordinator, who has been a regular face at the Wednesday lunch for several years. He brings some of the youth he works with to the meals as well. He spent much of his time in the kitchen, washing dishes and doing behind-the-scenes work so that the lunch ran smoothly.

 “The more you get involved with hunger awareness, the more you realize that it’s about one in six or one in eight people in this county that don’t eat,” he said. “It’s pretty profound.”

March was a baby step for Johnson’s CommUNITY Meal to provide weekly lunches to Johnson locals. Previously the program ran only every other week, but Johnson State College staff and its food services contractor Sodexo took the plunge on seeing if the program, somehow, could run on its own while doubling its efforts to give residents nutritionally-dense meals they could count on.

 So far, the move has been a little wobbly, but JSC’s Director of Experiential Learning Ellen Hill is holding her breath as she waits to see if it will gain more stability. For almost four years she has been closely involved with the program. She said about 50-60 people can show up at a time, and since the school has been involved 4,270 meals have been served and $2,400 has been donated to Johnson’s Food Shelf.

 She describes the program a “neat partnership between the college, the United Church of Johnson, and Laraway.”

 The program wasn’t born from church, college, or volunteerism. The idea was actually born from a stroke of efficiency when Lamoille County Court Diversion Restorative Justice Programs conceived the vision of creating an alternative to work crew for those needing to perform community service and also providing a weekly nutritional meal residents could depend on.

 After a few years, however, the court diversion group had to withdraw from running the program, asking if someone else would like to take over.

At first, no one was interested and Michael Ford, minister of the United Church of Johnson where the meals are served, was starting to believe it was the end of the meals program. He was worried because CommUNITY Meals was something he felt was a necessity for local residents who struggle to eat nutritious meals and are often alone.

 “There’s a social aspect to this and there are people who come who are craving company as much as they are food,” he said. “They may not speak to anybody; it’s just being around people. That’s the community piece to this; we’re caring for people without even knowing it in a way people may not be able to easily pick up on.”

So it was in around Christmas of 2010, when it seemed as though the gift of a bi-monthly hot meal and chance for residents to see one another was going to disappear, when Hill and JSC’s then-food-service contractor Aramark attended a last-effort meeting. According to Hill, the Aramark representative said casually, “You know, we feed about 500 people a day. We could take this on.”

 Ford said people at the meeting couldn’t believe their ears. It had been the fourth meeting and they had been “ready to close the doors.” For a while, the program was assured. But when Sodexo took over as a food service contractor at JSC, however, he once more feared the program had met an end.

 But JSC had was committed to the meal program and wrote it in to its contract with the meal company. Sodexo has been providing the balanced meals for several years now, and General Manager Tom Fondakowski said his staff has been great about doing the extra on the Wednesdays when they are already cooking for the college. But he admits that going from every other week to weekly, as they did this March, poses a challenge that concern him.

He said his group is careful enough of about its spending that the $5,000 extra a year for food isn’t an issue – it’s the manpower that worries him.  Even with Laraway volunteering the second and fourth Wednesdays, Fondakowski said he can’t afford to pay staff to go down for three hours on the other Wednesdays, particularly during school breaks and vacations. Right now members from the SERVE office have been helping out, he said, and he called the students and staff there a “Godsend.”

 At the threshold of an amazing opportunity, the CommUNITY Meal program is ready to hit another milestone; but can weekly services be sustained? Hill said finding volunteers to commit three hours every other week is difficult; people say can’t carve the three-hour chunk of time into their busy schedules.

  “My mantra is it takes a village to feed a village,” she said. “I feel there is an opportunity here for people to step up to the plate. I feel a lot of people say they’re interested in [serving or helping] but don’t sign up or show up. We are looking for people to say twice a year say, ‘I will volunteer twice a year, serve, and clean up.’ I think with this large of a community we have the capacity to make this happen.”

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