Filling cupboards in the Deerfield ValleyTwin Valley

By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO — Mark Hanna has watched holiday food baskets go from being assembled in a small breezeway to the Old School Community Center gym. 

"It's really an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing," the Whitingham-Halifax Lions Club president said Sunday after helping to provide almost 200 families with food before the holidays. "We try to set them up with quite a bit of food to fill their cupboards. They could be in severe need, maybe a little less." 

He said club member Jen Betit-Engle put the program "on steroids" after she began running it and got the Rotary Club of the Deerfield Valley and the Vermont Food Bank involved. 

A video on Facebook shows volunteers hurriedly putting food in bags spread out in five rows spanning the length of the gym. Hanna said the program has been around for about three decades "but it's growing substantially." 

Using the Old School Community Center in Wilmington, formerly Twin Valley High School, volunteers filled recyclable grocery bags with food for families. Other community members — going through chemotherapy or grieving the loss of a family member, for example — were given poinsettias to cheer them up. 

Hanna said about 40 residents received a flower this weekend, and altogether 414 adults and 223 children benefited from the program. 

"We bought 74 turkeys, 144 chickens and 50 hens," Hanna said. "For 2018, the new first-time families who have been added to our list is 92. So you can see that's a substantial uptick." 

About 25 years ago, the club tried to deliver hot meals to homes in Jacksonville, Halifax and Whitingham. But the food would be cold by the time they arrived. So the program was re-imagined to include different kinds of food. 

After Tropical Storm Irene, the Rotary Club of the Deerfield Valley teamed up on the effort. That saw the territory covered go from three areas to the entire valley: Dover, Halifax, Jacksonville, Readsboro, Searsburg, Whitingham and Wilmington. 

"It's really a substantial boost," said Hanna. 

The point, Hanna said, is to alleviate food insecurity, which affects one in seven Americans.

"In Vermont, it's an even greater problem," he said. "We're trying to address that head on. We've been growing the program." 

He said by getting good prices from the Vermont Food Bank when purchasing the food, the club is able to feed as many people as possible. Portions are decided by the number of family members and their names are kept private. 

Bags are laid out around the perimeter of the community center's gym for the food to be placed in. 

"The next day, we have a whole bunch of volunteers who may not be as mobile and they break down produce," Hanna said. "We get huge bags of carrots, onions, potatoes, winter squash. We even had mangoes this year." 

He is reminded of when he first met his wife — a single mother at the time, more than 30 years ago — when he sees orders for families with one adult. 

Hanna said dozens of volunteers showed up the help the Lions with the baskets. 

This year, his club went from having 23 members to 46. 

"They say that service clubs are dying and stuff like that — 'you just can't get volunteers these days,' 'people are too busy,'" he said. "We completely disprove that." 

After an insurance company frowned upon Lions members bagging at Shaw's as a fundraiser, the club started hosting the Hungry Lion Bike Tour about seven years ago at the suggestion of club member Joe Specht, who died last year and had been a professional cyclist in his youth. Riders take in the fall foliage then have a party at Town Hill in Whitingham. 

The first event brought in about $3,000. This year, the figure added up to more than $40,000. 

The money goes toward the food baskets program and the Deerfield Valley Food Pantry. Also, the bike tour attracts new members. 

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273