Waste Not, Want Not: Willing Hands Gets Donated Food to Those Who Need It

Published: 8/18/2016 1:13:43 PM
Modified: 8/4/2013 12:00:00 AM
Pick up, drop off, drop off. Repeat. It’s the rhythm of the day for Jim McCracken, one of four part-time truck drivers with Willing Hands.

Seven days a week, the nonprofit delivers food that otherwise might have gone to waste to people who need it.

Thursday afternoon, McCracken made several stops in White River Junction. When the 12-foot truck arrived at Northwoods, a subsidized housing complex, a group of people was waiting in a common room. They chatted as they looked through the cardboard boxes McCracken carried in.

“Anybody want to share grapes?” someone asked.

“I’ll have some,” Eileen Willis said.

“Ooh, lettuce!” Willis, a vegetarian, said a while later. And then, “Vegan cheese! Can you believe it?”

Willis, her husband and two of their children had recently moved to Northwoods and were still in the process of updating their food stamp paperwork. “We were so low on food,” she said. “This helps.”

Grocery stores, bakeries and farms donate the food, which is then delivered to 58 locations between Orford and Windsor, including day care and rehabilitation programs, food shelves, community meals and subsidized housing. McCracken, who had 11 stops to make, organized the items so each site would receive a variety.

“You get to know what they like and sort of cater to what they need,” he said.

Nonetheless, they need to move the food.

“Everybody gets eggplant,” he said with a chuckle.

The majority of the donations come from the Co-op Food Stores in Hanover, Lebanon and White River Junction. “We try to sell high-quality food at a fair price,” said Allan Reetz, communications director for the stores. That which does not quite meet the Co-op’s standards, but is perfectly good to eat, goes to Willing Hands. And the refrigerated truck allows for the delivery of more perishable, high-protein items, such as yogurt approaching its sell by date and fresh ground beef.

Co-op employees, used to the routine, set aside items for the program as they work. A bruised apple here, a head of lettuce minus a few damaged leaves there — pounds turn quickly to tons.

On average, Willing Hands delivers about four tons of food a week. Because everything is donated, what they receive varies. “We have no idea what we are going to get on a given day,” said Heather Bagley, the nonprofit’s executive director.

Last year, thanks to about 25 food donors, the nonprofit delivered around 188 tons of food, about 95 percent of which was fruit and vegetables. Eggs, milk, meat and locally baked bread accounted for the rest.

“McNamara Dairy calls us periodically with very generous quantities of milk,” and the Share the Harvest program at West Lebanon Feed and Supply has provided “lots of eggs,” Bagley said.

Kristine Strong, who lives in Graystone Village, subsidized housing in White River Junction for seniors and people with disabilities, said the free food helps out with her grocery bill.

“We’re able to get some things that I can’t afford,” she said, tucking a package of ground beef into a sturdy shopping bag.

Originally from Mobile, Ala., Strong recently found a taste of home in the boxes from Willing Hands — collard greens, which she cooked up with a little water and bacon grease. And with the help of her new friends at Graystone, she’s tried some new things, too. Bright yellow patty pan squash, for one.

“The ladies (here) showed me how to cook it,” she said, her Southern lilt still evident.

Willing Hands recently began working with the Vermont Food Bank, which is trying to include more fresh produce in its offerings, Bagley said. To help the food bank meet the challenge of dispersing fresh food quickly, Willing Hands has delivered about 10,000 pounds to Vermont sites since April. “It’s a nice supplement to our load,” she said.

Canned and dry foods, long the staples of food shelves, are generally convenient and easy to store. “Open a can and there’s your stew,” Bagley said.

But for those on a tight budget, produce is a welcome addition.

“It’s an important nutritional supplement to their diet, providing vitamins and minerals they might not otherwise have available,” she said. And because fresh vegetables and fruit can require some preparation, having access to them may also encourage people to take up cooking.

“In cooking, they may find that it can be a money-saver … rather than relying on purchasing already-prepared foods,” she said.

The nonprofit provides recipes and cooking workshops, which focus on nutrition and easy ways to use produce. Recently, Willing Hands provided food for a cooking program at Romano Circle in West Lebanon. The program, taught by Schweitzer Fellows from the Geisel School of Medicine, was primarily for children. “It ended up being very popular,” Bagley said.

With a full-time equivalent staff of fewer than two, Willing Hands depends largely on volunteers, about 150 in all, to carry out its work, including tending its organic garden. The one-acre garden, on land provided by Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford, yields more than 5,000 pounds of produce a year. Last year, volunteers gleaned 9.3 tons of food from local commercial farms and orchards.

“We keep our overhead as low as possible,” said Bagley, who was speaking on the phone from her home office. Willing Hands has has no central office, and when not in use, its truck is stored in a barn owned by board member Jay Van Arman.

“There’s a very generous spirit in this community,” Bagley said. “That’s what makes it all possible.”

At Village Apartments, subsidized housing for seniors, Mary Fanelli knew what she was after.

“I want a tomato and a cucumber, and I’m out of here,” Fanelli said, picking through a box of vegetables.

“No meat?” McCracken asked, opening the cooler he’d wheeled in on a metal dolly.

“Yeah, if you got it,” she said. McCracken handed her a package of ground beef wrapped in white paper.

“Thank you. You’re very, very nice,” she said. As he left, she added, “Stay out of trouble!”

The United Church of South Royalton, which hosts weekly community dinners, is another one of McCracken’s regular stops. Raelene Lemery, who organizes the meals, said they draw anywhere from 50 to 100 people.

Before the church connected with Willing Hands, putting food on the community table was a stretch, Lemery said. “I was going to the store and buying whatever meal I was going to cook, and we didn’t have anything extra.”

Now, what isn’t used for dinner is set out for people to take home. Depending on the week, that might include bread, bananas or potatoes. “The whole thing is such a blessing,” she said.

And the Friday night meals also include more meat and fresh produce. Recently, Lemery said, she served steamed green beans and summer squash. “People loved it because it was fresh.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at 603-727-3210 or acaruso@vnews.com.

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