One-woman ‘soup ministry’ grows in Starksboro

STARKSBORO — Two years ago on a Sunday afternoon, Roberta McKinney pulled up into the loading dock of the South Burlington Trader Joe’s in her family car. She was looking for a bit of food that she could donate to local families in need, but the sight that greeted her stopped her in her tracks: 40 banana boxes filled with meats and fresh produce alongside bags of bread.
Food retailers that handle perishable foods must throw away everything they don’t sell by the expiration date. When McKinney, a Starksboro community activist, heard about the level of food waste in the community, her mind immediately jumped to the undernourished families in the neighborhood. If these companies were going to throw out the food anyways, why not let her use it to help those in need?
Since her first pick-up from Trader Joe’s, McKinney has enlisted the help of a dedicated crew, the local church’s refrigerator and a neighboring farmer’s truck to create the “Share On…” food redistribution program — a legacy she hopes will continue to grow even as she finalizes preparations to move from Starksboro to St. Johnsbury later in the month.
“I put (an ellipsis) at the end because in writing, it means there’s something more coming. I use it because (the food sharing) goes on,” McKinney said. “I share the food with (the people from the community) and they share it at their homes with their families.”
McKinney moved to Starksboro five years ago. As she began to settle into the community, she started noticing the food insecurity that was prevalent throughout the town’s population.
“Through the school I was working at (Robinson Elementary School), I saw that there was a lot of undernourished people who struggled with their budgets,” McKinney said. “There were students who were hungry at school, and I also found a lot of seniors struggling on fixed income, especially in the winter time when they had to choose between buying fuel or buying food.”
Four years ago, McKinney started a soup ministry out of her own kitchen. She asked local businesses for seedlings or starter plants that they no longer wanted, grew a garden and began making and delivering soup to families and the elderly in the neighborhood each week.
Eventually, she began to realize that the community’s needs extended beyond what the soup provided, and she began looking for ways to bring other components of the food pyramid into her work. She started looking for bread to supplement the soup and began working with the food distribution program at Panera Bread to bring unsold bread and pastries to the community.
Then, two years ago, a friend who had began working at South Burlington’s Trader Joe’s told McKinney about the company’s search for someone to take their leftover foods on the weekends when the food banks were closed.
“I hesitated at first, because it seemed like a lot on top of the soup ministry, Panera Bread, working a full-time job and being a mom,” McKinney said. “But three weeks later I finally made an appointment to meet with the (store manager,) Shawn Minihane.”
McKinney was shocked by the sheer amount of food.
“I needed a utility truck,” McKinney said with a laugh. “I called my daughter to help me carry all the food they wanted me to take home and we called everyone we know and told them to call everyone they knew.”
For the first three weeks of Share On…, McKinney operated out of her driveway. As she had no storage or refrigeration resources to accommodate the amount of food she received, she and her daughter piled the boxes on the ground and invited those in the community to pick up what they needed.
Now the program operates out of Starksboro Baptist Church, with 30 to 60 people attending in any given week. Most of the attendees are from the Starksboro area, but McKinney knows at least one person who comes regularly from as far away as Essex Junction.
“People here aren’t starving — they’re undernourished because they’re eating the wrong food,” McKinney said. “A lot of people talk about how they’re eating more healthy now. They could never afford to eat the pyramid of foods before — they’ll just buy the cheapest food they can get. Now they can get that variety.”
The benefits community members receive from the food redistribution program varies, from families that rely on the food to supplement their diets to families whose lives have become a little easier thanks to the program.
“I get my box of food like everybody else,” McKinney said.
“Once, I got my little box of food and I walked into the store, and I thought to myself, ‘What was I going to get?’ It’s a really weird feeling to walk into the grocery store and know that I did have some food in my refrigerator,” McKinney said. “So then I bought bug spray, because I can’t usually afford bug spray. Now I have a little more money in my pocket, and I can help the kids not get bit by bugs.”
McKinney has seen the impact Share On… has had on the community, from both the nourishment of the food and the community the program has brought together. As she prepares to move away from Starksboro, her plans are twofold.
“I want to see (Share On…) continue now that I’m moving, because it’s such an important part of people’s lives,” McKinney said. “My goal is also to raise awareness of food insecurity and the amount of waste we produce in America.”
Even as she looks to St. Johnsbury to start a new program, she was such an essential part of Share On… that it is difficult for those involved to see the project without her.
“The program is all (McKinney),” two-year Share On… volunteer Celina Gaffrey said. “She’s poured her energy, her kindness and her persistence into the project. She’s tireless, and we’re going to miss her a lot.”
As McKinney searched for someone to carry on her legacy in Starksboro, she settled on New Community Project sustainable center director Peter Antos-Ketcham.
Although Antos-Ketcham joined the Share On… team only last spring, he has already started initiatives of his own within the program. He brought NCP and Share On… together with a community garden that he hopes will both supplement the resources from Trader Joe’s and empower community members through food production.
“Our short-term goal is to maintain all the efforts (McKinney) has invested and the relationships she’s built with people,” Antos-Ketcham said. “We also want to engage more people in the community to participate in the food process and help to educate and inspire people to participate in food production.”
As Antos-Ketcham assumes the reins of Share On…, McKinney hopes that the initiative she has taken with the program in Starksboro will encourage others to start similar projects within their own communities.
“There’s a way to do this,” McKinney said. “It just takes a conscious change of mind and a willingness to look at the people who are receiving the food. There’s no socioeconomic criteria — anybody and everybody can use food.”

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