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Jim Kenyon: Cupboards Bare at SoRo Food Shelf

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 7/9/2017 12:19:51 AM
Modified: 7/9/2017 12:19:52 AM

On Thursday mornings, 81-year-old Vivian Caswell would drive herself and a friend the three-tenths of a mile down South Windsor Street from their Brightwood House apartments to the South Royalton Food Shelf.

They made a point of arriving early, which not only improved their chances of being first in line, but gave them a chance to chat over coffee with food shelf volunteers and others in need of a helping hand.

“It was a place you could go to socialize and get your food at the same time,” Caswell told me. “We kind of miss it.”

The South Royalton Food Shelf, which had been around for 20 years, closed its doors a little more than two weeks ago.

But it wasn’t because the food shelf had outlived its usefulness — it was averaging about 175 visitors a month.

Like some of the folks who relied on it for free groceries every week, the food shelf suddenly found itself homeless through no fault of its own. The former church building that it had operated out of for all these years was sold in April.

Chelsea businessman Robert Button Jr. purchased the South Windsor Street property from the California-based International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Over the years, several churches had used the building. The most recent was Community Fellowship Church, which disbanded last fall.

Last week, Button told me that he paid close to $300,000 for the property, which includes the church building and a warehouse on six acres. The South Royalton rumor mill has Button relocating his construction supply business that’s now in Chelsea to the property.

The talk is just that, he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do there. I have no concrete plans.”

Whatever his plans turn out to be, they apparently don’t include room for the food shelf. In a brief phone conversation, Button told me that keeping the food shelf in the building wouldn’t work for “insurance reasons.”

But food shelf volunteers aren’t ready to pack it in. They have their eyes on the town’s old creamery building, as it’s called, not far from the village green. They’re talking with the building’s out-of-state owner about buying or leasing the property.

“It needs a good bit of work,” said Susanne Trottier, one of the volunteers working on getting the shelf running again. For starters, the floor needs $3,000 to $5,000 in repairs.

“The problem is we don’t have any money,” Trottier said. “We’re praying that people come through.”

Anna Wright, another volunteer, said a mailing is being put together to send to residents seeking donations. “Even that costs money,” said Wright.

Her husband, the Rev. David Wright, started the food shelf and was instrumental in its success until his death eight years ago.

After Community Fellowship Church closed last fall, the food shelf was at risk of losing its nonprofit status. The United Church of South Royalton, which already operates a thrift store in town, stepped in.

The church, known around town as the Red Door Church, doesn’t have space for a food shelf, but is working closely with volunteers to find a new home. “We desperately need a building,” said Lynn Irish, the church’s administrative assistant. “We haven’t given up.”

In a way, I’m amazed the food shelf has managed to keep going as long as it has. Its half dozen volunteers are now all retirees, who along with handing out food on Thursdays, have held bake sales to help pay for $500 to $1,200 a month in groceries.

Trottier, 76, has been driving 120 miles round trip once a month to Chester, Vt., to pick up fresh vegetables and canned goods. Wright, 69, is the food shelf’s liaison with the nonprofit Vermont Foodbank, which provides staples and meats at discounted prices to the state’s food shelves.

“This is a small way that we can help people,” Wright said. “We don’t want to see it die.”

Unlike some food shelves, South Royalton has never limited its use to town residents. Anyone who walked through the door could have whatever was on the shelves or in the freezers. On holidays, they’d offer frozen turkeys, but not everyone would take one.

“Some people don’t have an oven,” Trottier said.

After learning that the operation would have to close, South Royalton volunteers have scrambled to find alternatives for clients. Once a month, the Vermont Foodbank will deliver cereal, canned vegetables and other commodities to the Red Door Church to distribute to the elderly.

The Sharon Congregational Church, which offers a food shelf on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:30-6:30 p.m., is also spreading the word that people who relied on South Royalton’s food shelf are welcome to stop by.

In South Royalton, “we’ve got a lot of elderly who didn’t have high-paying jobs,” Trottier said. “Social Security doesn’t do it for them.”

Caswell considers herself more fortunate than other retirees whose savings have run low. Along with Social Security, she has a small pension that she got for 20 years at G.W. Plastics in Bethel, where she started out as a machine operator and worked her way up to supervisor. A widow, she now lives at Brightside, a 15-unit affordable housing complex under the auspices of the Vermont State Housing Authority.

“Myself, I can get along,” she told me. “Of course, there are other bills to pay, so it was good to have the food shelf to fall back on.

“It really did help a lot of people.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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