Milton Residents Help Feed Their Neighbors for the Holiday | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Milton Residents Help Feed Their Neighbors for the Holiday

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Sophia Donforth - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Sophia Donforth

The halls of the Milton Family Community Center were filled last week with bags packed with ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner: cranberry sauce, stuffing, potatoes, biscuit mix, gravy and vegetables. The nonprofit center, which houses childcare programs and a food shelf, provides Thanksgiving dinner to local families each year. Food is donated by neighbors, students, the Fraternal Order of Eagles club and residents of the Ledges, a nearby housing development.

This year, about 160 families are expected to receive their Thanksgiving meal through the center, executive director Sophia Donforth said. Along with those provisions, people who picked up groceries at the center received a Hannaford gift card to purchase a turkey or other main course.

"We like to think the [level of] need is temporary, with the pandemic," Donforth said of people seeking help to put food on the table. "When that [need] skyrockets, everything else gets put on hold."

According to researchers at the University of Vermont, roughly one in three Vermonters has faced food insecurity since the start of the pandemic. Data released on November 19 by UVM's Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences indicate that 27 percent of Vermont households continue to experience food insecurity.

The Vermont Foodbank is the state's largest hunger-relief organization. It partners with scores of food pantries and meal sites around the state, including the center in Milton. Its statewide food distribution increased from between 9 and 12 million pounds per year pre-pandemic to 19 million pounds during fiscal year 2020, according to Vermont Foodbank director of communications Sarah Keblin.

"Rising costs, including for heating and food, as well as the ending of some federal assistance programs ... mean we are headed into uncertain times," Keblin wrote by email to Seven Days.

The Milton Family Community Center is located in a former doctor's office off Route 7. Exam rooms have been converted into offices. Nonperishable food and other necessities are stored in a small room. The halls, at least in the week before Thanksgiving, became a makeshift pantry for holiday side dishes. About 30 children, ages 6 weeks to 5 years, attend childcare or preschool at the center. Its food shelf provides groceries, diapers and other goods to about 60 families a week, Donforth said.

During the pandemic, center staff have been packing up groceries for people, who pick up their food at scheduled appointments. Produce, bread and other items, including jackets, hats and boots, are set on shelves outside the center, where people can help themselves. That setup will move to the lobby for the winter.

The Thanksgiving meal dates back about 20 years and is made possible because "people keep showing up at the center with their van full of goodies," Donforth said.

Melanie Dulude distributing food - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Melanie Dulude distributing food

Jazz Heath is one of those people. She organized a food drive at the Ledges, the 70-family housing development where she lives. Last year, Heath put up three signs in the neighborhood, set out a table at the end of her driveway and collected 480 pounds of food. This year, she passed out notes to inform people that the food drive was specifically for Thanksgiving meals.

"My neighbors went to bat," Heath said. "We collected over 30 full meals."

She's a former Milton schoolteacher who currently works as a veterinary pharmaceutical representative. Through her work in the school, Heath developed "a great affection for and understanding of the needier parts of Milton," she said.

But over the past couple of years, "I think everybody knows somebody who's come upon hard times," Heath added. "It's not a hard stretch to imagine someone who's lost a job, or lost a loved one, or just had a crummy time of it lately."

Founded in 1985, the center was designed as a resource and support for parents. It provides advice about children's nutritional needs, as well as coaching for parents on building positive relationships with babies and little kids.

"People can call when parenting is stressing them out," said Donforth, a mother of two young children. "'Cause it's a really hard job, raising little people."

Particularly since the start of the pandemic, the center's core function is sometimes superseded by helping people address pressing, essential needs, Donforth said.

"You can't engage in a parenting workshop if you're worried about putting food on the table," she said. "So that's where our efforts and work has had to focus."

Families with kids in the daycare program, as well as other folks who use the center, could sign up for Thanksgiving dinner. But the meal was also available to people with no center affiliation.

Through an outpouring of support that Donforth called "heartening," families who might otherwise have missed the meal will be seated together at the Thanksgiving table.

"Milton is a tight-knit community," Heath said. "If you ask people to help, they'll help."

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Full Table | Milton residents help feed their neighbors for the holiday"

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