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'There Is So Much Good Happening Here': One Vermonter Fights Hunger In Her Community

A woman wearing a light green shirt cuts up orange vegetable.
Jeff Cornwell, Courtesy
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Berard-Brown works alone in the kitchen, preparing a Thanksgiving meal for 45 community members.

Food is on a lot of our minds today, as we gather around the table in our annual Thanksgiving Day feasts; smaller though they may be. We might enjoy turkey, stuffing, squash, pies and homemade breads.  But a record number of Vermonters are also facing food insecurity this Thanksgiving.According to a UVM study released earlier this week, 30% of Vermonters are dealing with food insecurity amid the pandemic. One Fairfax resident is doing her part to help.

Kath Berard-Brown loves to bake.  She grew up in a family of nine, and her Vermont home was often filled with the aroma of freshly-baked cookies, or some other delicious treat. Her mom instilled an early love of baking in her. 

"It's pretty astounding what folks are facing right now, especially as we're looking toward winter, a time when hunger is generally more challenging for folks." - Faye Mack, Hunger Free Vermont

A nurse by trade, Berard-Brown's passion is really baking. And she loves to bake for others. Her community-baking journey began about five years ago, after she attended a banquet for ANEW Place, a Burlington community non-profit that offers safe shelter and skills training for people dealing with homelessness.

She realized she could use her love of baking to help people in their own journeys.

During the banquet, Berard-Brown said she saw the guests and staff at ANEW Place had a need and decided she wanted to help them somehow.

So, she came up with "the cookie lady": every Friday she would deliver a glass cookie jar filled with freshly-baked cookies for the guests and staff at ANEW Place.

The cookie lady name stuck, and the guests adored her weekly batches until the pandemic hit and COVID restrictions prohibited her weekly visits. But that hasn't stopped Berard-Brown from doing something to meet the needs of fellow Vermonters this season. 

Across the state, need is increasing. A new study from UVM shows Vermonters face record levels of food insecurity. The study reports that 30% of Vermonters are food insecure.

Full Thanksgiving feast
Credit Karen Anderson / VPR
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VPR
Volunteers at Martha's Kitchen in St. Albans prepare traditional dishes for Thanksgiving Day take home meals.

Faye Mack is the Advocacy and Education Director for Hunger Free Vermont.  She said agencies are seeing record numbers of people in Vermont struggling to afford food -- levels never seen before in recent history. 

"It's pretty astounding what folks are facing right now, especially as we're looking toward winter, a time when hunger is generally more challenging for folks," Mack said. 

Vermont's numbers trend below the national average, according to Mack, but the increase in people needing assistance has been dramatic.

"So what we're seeing is a huge percentage of Vermonters facing challenges with meeting their basic needs, including food, over the course of the pandemic. But one of the things that's been really telling is that Vermont is one of the states that has seen the highest increase in huger," Mack said. "Our numbers are still about or below the average in the country, but the change in Vermont has been dramatic."

Volunteering, like Kath Berard-Brown has done, is one thing Vermonters can do to help.  According to the new UVM study, about 40% of Vermonters are stepping up to serve their local communities.

"It's been a tough year for everybody, all around," said Berard-Brown, who loves to bless people with her baking.

A brick and brown building
Credit Karen Anderson / VPR
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VPR
Marthas Community Kitchen in St. Albans, Vermont serves community meals to those in need.

Berard-Brown's baked goods are well known in Franklin County. For the last four years, she's provided batches of muffins each week to the visitors at Martha's Kitchen, a place that offers food and companionship to the St. Albans community. A hot meal is provided every day of the week.  Since COVID, their dine-in service has switched to grab-and-go.

"On March 17, we closed our dining room. So since then we've been doing grab-and-go meals.  There's still a home cooked meal everyday," Bob Begley said.

He's the guardian, or administrator, of the St. Albans community kitchen.  A Franciscan Brother, and a former nurse with a background in corrections and restorative justice, Begley has run Martha's Kitchen for the last six years. 

Begley first met Berard-Brown about five years ago. "She's very quiet, very humble," he said. "You don't even know when she enters the building." 

The guests at Martha's Kitchen love Berard-Brown's homemade breads.

"It's not just banana bread," Begley said, "It's the love she puts in it, the kindness, the heart behind it.  It's beautiful."

Since COVID, the Franklin County soup kitchen has dropped from 150 community volunteers to 25.  At the same time, the number of meals served has increased. Last year, they served over 32,000 meals. And by the end of last month, they had already surpassed that number, nearing 40,000 meals served or delivered.

Begley said there are lots of ways people can help.

"Give of your time. Come in and see. We receive many phone calls from people who want to volunteer on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. But we're open every day of the year.  We're always looking for volunteers to help," he said.

A sign inside the Lake Street building summarizes Begley's mission. 

White sign that reads believe there is good in the world.
Credit Karen Anderson / VPR
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VPR
One of Bob Begleys truths to live by. This sign hangs inside Marthas Community Kitchen in St. Albans.

"Be the good," he says. "There is so much good happening here."

This Thanksgiving, Berard-Brown wanted to provide more than bread for people in need.  She organized an entire take-home Thanksgiving feast. 

"I've got 45 people signed up," she said.  "I called around and got names from the senior center and a local nurse in town.  My idea wasn't just to feed someone who didn't feel like cooking that day. It was for somebody who had a need in one form or another."

For Berard-Brown, adjusting to COVID-19 precautions for food preparation wasn't too hard.  She prefers to be alone in the kitchen.

"I prefer to be behind the scenes," she said. But, when she works in the kitchen she does like to crank the music to one of her favorite singers, Lauren Daigle. 

And she whistles while she works.

Berard-Brown wants to do even more to help her local community. 

"I just love to help people," she said.  "I would love to know where the need is for food insecurity in Vermont. I would love to start some type of a program one-night-a-week, just baking or cooking a meal, but I don't know where to start with that."

As food insecurity is an increasing problem in the state, Faye Mack from Hunger Free Vermont said there are things individuals can do to help.

"As we enter the cold months, it's really important for Vermonters to check in on their neighbors."

Mack also said it might be time to give other volunteers a break. Some have been working tirelessly since the pandemic started. 

One by one, Vermonters can make a difference in their communities, like Kath Berard-Brown. 

"Whether they're food insecure, elderly, ill, life is overwhelming for the, or they're depressed," Berard-Brown says she wants to help.  "That's really where my heart is, to help people that truly have a need."

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