by Peter Freyne
Perhaps like you, I've long had the impression the Vermont Foodbank in Barre is a most honorable charitable organization that provides free, healthy food to hungry, low-income Vermonters.
So it was a bit of a surprise to get a call Monday from Al Robinson [left], director of the Imani Health Institute, a small Old North End non-profit providing health info and services to Vermont's ever-growing "community of color," both black and Muslim.
Concerned about the impact of childhood hunger, Mr. Robinson got in touch with the Vermont Foodbank a few months ago and signed on for a year's worth of once-a-month Neighborhood Pantry Express Drops. That's 5000 pounds of food and costs $250 per drop. In the pitches the Foodbank made to him, Robinson said it sure looked like good, healthy, nutritious food - the stuff that just doesn't fill empty tummies, but also builds strong bodies. Imani raises the money to pay for the Foodbank monthly drop through small fund-raisers, he said.
The first couple Pantry Express drops contained a good mix of food, he told us. But then things changed. The last few have been different. Significantly lower quality items. Now, Robinson says, Imani is getting big drops of cookies and crackers and bottled water and snack foods. They're clients are not seeing any of the "meat and potatoes" that was in the early Foodbank drops.
"We've become their dumping ground," Robinson told me with disgust. And what was really the last straw, he said, was the April 27 Freeps article "Roving Food Drive a Hit at Church," praising the Vermont Foodbank for it's NPE drop at the Congregational Church in Malletts Bay which included potatoes and Cornish Game Hens!
"I feel like we're the new kids on the block," said Al, "and I'm having trouble believing that everybody's being treated the same way."
Tuesday afternoon, Robinson met with Vermont Foodbank officials in Barre. The pow-wow broke up too late to make the "Inside Track" in today's Seven Days.
We can report that it appears to have been a productive session.
"Our intention is always to treat our agencies with utmost respect and to give them good customer service," said Christine Foster, one of the current co-CEO's at the Foodbank. "We just sat around the table and had a wonderful conversation about that. We understand and regret how he felt," she said, and the Foodbank is committed to helping Imani "get the best food they can from the Foodbank."
But why was the Old North End agency getting "junk" while Mallett's Bay Congregational was getting Cornish Hens?
"It was a mistake on our part," said fellow acting co-CEO Ed Fox, "not to get that out to them."
Robinson told me after the meeting that his main concern is getting less "crap" in the once-a-month 5000 pound drop even if that means fewer pounds. What's important is getting food that truly fights hunger.
The Vermont Foodbank's new CEO Douglas O'Brien starts June 18. O'Brien's been with Chicago-based America's Second Harvest since 1994.