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'It Gets You Right In The Chest': Watching 1,900 Cars Show Up For Food

A person in military clothing and an orange vest in front of food pallets.
Erica Heilman
/
VPR
Darren Farnsworth, a non-commissioned officer in the Vermont National Guard, oversaw food distribution in Hyde Park recently.

The Vermont Foodbank, together with The Abbey Group, the state of Vermont, and the Vermont National Guard, is providing food boxes all over the state, filled with chicken, produce, dairy and non-perishable food. These are drive-through events where the Vermont National Guard loads food directly into peoples’ vehicles.

At the first event on May 15 in Berlin, approximately 1,900 cars showed up for food, with some waiting in line for up to five hours. Erica Heilman visited a recent event in Hyde Park to talk with people in their cars.

Here’s Casey from Coventry.

Casey: “I’ve been unemployed, well, laid off, since the second week of March. My husband’s been laid off about the same time. He’s a self-employed contractor. And he did qualify, but he’s still waiting to get unemployment. Luckily my boss was able keep paying me through something, I don’t know, so I didn’t have to apply for unemployment, thank God. So I’ve received about 30ish hours of my pay a week. But, you know, we have three teenagers. So.”

Me: “What are you most nervous about right now? What are you worried about?”

Casey: “Paying the rent. Because he hasn’t received anything.”

Me: “I’ll catch up with you. You go ahead.”

The line of cars moved forward.

More from VPR: Living On A Tight Budget — And Finding The 'Silver Lining — During COVID-19

Me: “So tell me, you were talking about rent.”

Casey: “I mean he’s a farmer. So he’s hurting also right now. He come down kind of grouchy the other day, because he’s not getting what he was for his milk. He’s stressed out. So you know, he needs his rent. Which I understand.”

Me: “Are you worried?”

Casey: “Yeah. Like I also heard when I do go back to work — I work in a daycare — she decided not to open until July 6. But even when we do go back … we were on 10 hour days. I heard the daycare’s going to cut down to like 8:15 in the morning to 2:00 in the afternoon, and that isn’t going to give us 40 hours a week. You know and even then, we’re going to be cut back on the number of kids and the number of employees.

“I don’t even know if she’ll bring me back, because I’m like a floater-type person. I float, usually, through the rooms and help when I’m needed and cover lunch breaks and stuff. Can she even bring me back? And what does it look like for my husband, that usually will go work on people’s houses. They don’t want people like that in the house right now, because what if he’s carrying it, you know? So. Yeah.”

People in military uniforms surrounding crates of milk.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
/
VPR
Milk ready for distribution in Hyde Park.

This is Roger and Gordon from Hyde Park.

Me: “Is this the first time you’ve been to one of these pickup sites?”

Roger: “First time ever.”

Me: “And why are you here?”

Roger and Gordon: “Retired. To get food.”

Me: “And on a scale of one to ten how worried are you right now about food?”

Gordon: “I’m on a fixed income. I could use all the help that I can get.”

Roger: “People that retired five or six years ago were a lot lower as far as what they make now. They don’t catch up with the people that are up there now. They never will.”

Gordon: “Everything is getting more expensive, and if you’re on a fixed income it don’t go nowhere. If they raise it at all, they raise your insurance so you ain’t got nothing. It feels like I was self-sufficient most of my life and stuff, and now I just need help getting through, you know, month to month.”

This is Liza from Johnson.

Liza: “It’s kind of challenging having a child in the car with me, trying to do her schoolwork.”

Me: “What brings you here? What’s your situation?”

Liza: “Well I’m a small business, as you see on my van. I’m Mrs. Rathburn’s Cleaning and More. I do mainly Airbnb rentals, but I do have some homes that I do clean in the Vermont area which is Stowe, Morrisville, Waterbury. And I’m not allowed to clean occupied houses right now, and that’s my main income. We don’t get state help. We don’t get food stamps.

“My husband’s working. He’s a property and grounds manager at a resort in Stowe. Luckily he’s been working throughout the whole time. Otherwise we wouldn’t be surviving. The stimulus check came but it wasn’t enough to make the car payments and everything else, get the kids what they need. And so we have to come and get a little help.”

People in military uniforms putting boxes into cars.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
/
VPR
Food gets loaded into trunks by Vermont National Guard members at Hyde Park.

This is Cynthia from Coventry.

Me: “Why are you here?”

Cynthia: “Because I can’t afford to pay for food unless I go into debt. And it seems dumb to go into debt for food, if you don’t have to.”

Me: “What happened? What circumstance changed?”

Cynthia: “I actually had just started the census, and we were suspended, and so I ended up losing my apartment. People are falling out of the woodwork to help, so I’m going to be fine. But I’ve been sitting here for two hours. And it’s OK because there are people helping.”

Me: “There’s something ironic about the fact that you were working for the census.”

Cynthia: “And I’ve gone back to it, but that doesn’t mean I can make up for time that was lost. And also by doing the census, you find out a lot about what’s going on in the back roads.”

Me: “What are you learning?”

Cynthia: “That right next to the sketchiest camps are McMansions, and it’s bizarre and the tension is huge.”

More from VPR: 'Boots On The Ground': National Guard Deploys MREs To Vermonters

This is Darren Farnsworth, the non-commissioned officer in charge that day.

Darren: “We still got FEMA meals left, we still got chicken left, we still got milk left, but we’re running low. We’re running out of cheese, we’re running out of produce. It’s been very long. We’ve already pumped through about 500 cars.”

Me: “Are you exhausted?”

Darren: “Yeah. The need? The need is obvious. And like our first day in Swanton. It was just MREs. We showed up with five trucks, five trailers, we started at quarter of seven, we ran out at 11:30. And it was five hours before we got our next shipment. And we stayed there till 11:30 at night. These kids in the Guard, they’re working 15, 16 hours a day. It was a little overwhelming at first. We never had anything like this. We haven’t had anything like this since the Depression.”

Me: “What’s taxing about this mentally?”

Darren: “Mentally? Is the need. And some of the stories. Couple in Swanton hadn’t been out of their home in two months. And the last thing they ate was rice and beans. And it was two days before we got to ‘em. They’re not poor. They just didn’t dare to go out to go shopping. It gets you right in the chest.”

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