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Fresh food charity Willing Hands finds a new home in Norwich

  • Gabe Zoerheide, executive director of Willing Hands, closes the bay doors of their newly-purchased building in Norwich, Vt., on Monday, April 29, 2019. This section of the building will be used for their trucks and refrigerated coolers for produce. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/5/2019 10:00:18 PM
Modified: 5/5/2019 10:00:16 PM

For more than a decade, Willing Hands found more and more hands willing to donate; to grow; to harvest; and to deliver fresh, healthy food to Upper Valley residents in need.

The trick was finding a place to keep all that fresh produce fresh — until the 15-year-old nonprofit struck a deal recently with developers David and Kathy Clem to buy a 4,160-square-foot warehouse off Route 5 just north of downtown Norwich.

The building, which at one time housed an Agway store and later a Suburban Propane outlet, sits on a 10-acre parcel where Willing Hands plans to grow still more food.

“The building is in great shape,” Willing Hands Executive Director Gabe Zoerheide said last week during a telephone interview from the agency’s office there. “The main thing we need to do immediately is to install the coolers.”

The coolers will open between 700 and 800 square feet of food-storage space, up from the current 200 square feet, he said. All the better to store massive amounts of food the organization handles, which topped half a million pounds in 2018.

“It’s been a really big push for us the last couple of years,” Zoerheide added. “We had more than 280 volunteers working for us in 2018, more than double the number in 2017, and we expect it to grow to around 350 this year.”

And while the new box truck that Willing Hands bought in 2017 holds more food — and refrigerates it better — than the vans the agency used to rely on, it brought its own issues.

“We knew it was too big for our existing garage,” Zoerheide said.

The current garage belongs to the Van Arman family’s Meetinghouse Farm in Norwich, Willing Hands’ headquarters of the last 10 years.

“It’s somebody’s home,” Zoerhide said. “It’s not a commercial space. What this new property gives us is a public space where we can invite more people in.”

The Clems’ Lyme Properties had bought the space and surrounding land in 2007, and for several years the town of Norwich considered converting it into a combined fire and police station — until voters vetoed the plan. The Clems then leased it for several years to the nonprofit Grassroot Soccer program, before deciding in 2017 to sell the Norwich site and most of their other properties in the Upper Valley to focus on their River Park mixed-use development in West Lebanon.

“Willing Hands is an excellent nonprofit organization,” David Clem said last week. “The site will allow them to do some creative things. The building has been super-insulated, and there’s warehouse storage in the back for walk-in coolers, plus there’s a permit to expand if they need to.

“It’s a win-win for both sides.”

The Norwich assessor’s office values the property at $488,800. Clem said he and his wife were looking for a municipal or nonprofit buyer with which to structure a so-called “bargain sale.” Such a sale, at below full-market value, allows the seller to deduct the difference between the appraised value and the sale price from capital-gains obligations.

Zoerheide said the property is now undergoing an appraisal to determine the final purchase price, after which Willing Hands will start a fundraising campaign. He added that the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation and the White Mountains Insurance Group already have provided “generous and timely support that allowed us to quickly complete the transaction and to install (the) coolers, so that we can move in later this spring.”

The move comes almost 15 years after founder Peter Phippen acquired a minivan and started relaying produce from the Co-op Food Stores, which would otherwise have gone to waste, to the Upper Valley Haven homeless shelter and other agencies serving low-income people in the region. Today, four drivers deliver donated, harvested and gleaned produce, as well as frozen meat and other Valley-grown and -baked food, to more than 60 such nonprofits within a 40-mile radius.

In addition to its current services, Willing Hands is developing a garden at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, and it recently received a grant from Harvard Pilgrim Health to expand its force of volunteers.

“With the new facility,” Zoerheide said, “there are definitely opportunities for corporate groups and school groups to get involved.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.


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