by Anna Kolosky, UVM Community News Service
HARDWICK – Nestled next to a church, the Hardwick Area Food Pantry sits tucked away in the heart of Hardwick. Serving about 300 people a month, the pantry is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides services to seven local towns: Hardwick, Wolcott, Greensboro, Craftsbury, Walden, Albany and Stannard.
LauraLee Sweeney, the pantry’s director, recently took on the role after working in numerous other positions.
“I went to college for human service and psychology, so it’s been a passion of mine for quite a while now,” Sweeney said. “I came to the food pantry after working in several different roles in social services, and I now have about ten years of experience.”
Sweeney had just started to settle into her role as director when the pandemic hit and forced the pantry to make some major system redesigns.
“Normally, people would come in, get a cart, and have the freedom to choose from a variety of items,” Sweeney said. “Now, we serve outside and still try to keep as many choices as possible, but it has taken people’s autonomy away.”
Winter weather posed a serious challenge to serving people outside, Sweeney added.
“The church that we’re attached to allows us to use the entryway to put our table, so our volunteers have some place to take shelter,” she explained. “The people outside can wait in their car if they have one, otherwise they’re in the elements, so we try to make it quick.”
Along with adapting to outside service and cold weather, the food pantry started a delivery program to reach more remote households under COVID-19 guidelines.
“We were talking about implementing a delivery system pre-pandemic because the need was there,” Sweeney said. “But the dramatic situations we were seeing, paired with other factors, really helped push the program forward.”
The delivery program also runs in the pantry’s two other locations in Albany and Craftsbury, serving over a hundred households between the three of them, Sweeney said. Not only does the delivery program provide food, it provides social interaction for quarantining citizens.
“I’ve had people on the delivery program say that their delivery driver has been the only interaction they’ve had with someone in a while,” Sweeney said. “It’s really important to them. Just to have that quick interaction with a person has been really meaningful.”
Before and throughout the pandemic, the pantry was buying and receiving some of their food products from local farms. The pantry always has local eggs, milk, bread and meat Sweeney said.
“Black Dirt Farm gave us donations of eggs, greens, and plant starts at the start of the pandemic,” Sweeney said. “Patty LeBlanc’s farm also gives us eggs, and we get our milk from Sweet Rowen Farm in Albany.”
If the pantry had unlimited funds, they would love to buy everything locally, Sweeney added.
“We want to support the local economy because it’s just going to benefit the local community.” She called the strategy “a preventative approach so that, hopefully, people don’t have to come to the food pantry. They can have the satisfaction of growing their own food or earning money to buy their own food.”
In addition to providing food and plant starts, the pantry hosts educational workshops about growing your own food, Sweeney said.
“On April 3, we’re running a pruning workshop at Atkins Field and on April 23, there’s a mushroom growing workshop,” she said. “Those will be held in-person, outdoors while wearing masks and anyone is welcome to come.”
While the food pantry has managed to keep providing for the community throughout the pandemic, Sweeney is excited about the future.
“We’ve adapted, expanded and made it through,” Sweeney said. “But I am really looking forward to going back to people coming in, making their own choices and just getting to know us more.” For more information about the Hardwick Area Food Pantry, visit nourishhardwick.org/pantry or view their wishlist at nourishhardwick.org/wishlist.