Bristol food shelf looks to Saturday’s Fill the Firehouse Food Drive

BRISTOL — The cupboards are just about bare at Bristol’s Have a Heart Community Food Shelf. Literally. With the exception of some canned and packaged foods in reserve for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, last Friday’s regular monthly distribution cleaned out the food pantry that serves the 5-town area.
Organizers say that this weekend’s 10th annual “Fill the Firehouse” food drive is critical to helping neighbors in need. Firefighters in Bristol and the surrounding towns are collecting food and money to buy food to help those less fortunate (see box on jump page).
“Nobody should be hungry,” said Have a Heart Director Rebecca Stude-Price, who’s volunteered with the organization for 17 years. “No one in this country should be hungry. And when there’s kids involved — that’s when my heart breaks.”
Housed in the basement of St. Ambrose Catholic Church just off the town green, Have a Heart Community Food Shelf has been operating for around 25 years, said Stude-Price. It serves households in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro — on average, 60 to 70 families (an estimated 200 people) each month. According to Stude-Price about a third of those are seniors, most of the rest are working families with children.
“I will say that they’re not the same 60 families every month. I see new people coming all the time,” she said.
Food shelf use goes down in the summer and back up fall through spring, she said. Each November and December, the numbers spike.
“We give out 100 turkey baskets at Thanksgiving, and at Christmas it’s 100 ham baskets,” Stude-Price said.
While Have a Heart benefits from cash and food donations year round, donations — like food shelf use — typically go down over the summer. That makes the annual “Fill the Firehouse” food drive the most important of the year. Last year the drive pulled in 4,630 pounds of food and $1,571 in cash donations.
“Saturday the firemen are hoping for 5,000 pounds of food,” she said. They also hope to raise $1,600.
Community is truly at the heart of the Bristol-based enterprise.
“This food shelf is solely supported by the five-town region,” said Stude-Price, who explained that Have a Heart has no affiliation “whatsoever” with the Vermont Food Bank.
“This is an amazing community we live in. If I need something, I put the word out and stuff comes in,” Stude-Price said.
Community is also an important part of what connects volunteers.
“I just wanted to do something local to help,” said Bristol resident Pat Sharpe. Sharpe said what she enjoys most is “just community involvement — knowing that it’s helping somebody.”
Fellow Bristol volunteer Kathy Burritt said she too enjoys the opportunity to lend a hand and get out in the community.
Have a Heart distributes food on the third Friday of each month (timed to cover that last week or so when 3 Squares federal food assistance funds run out). So volunteers gather the day before to get the bags of groceries ready for pick up.
Last Thursday afternoon found a small group of volunteers at Have a Heart hard at work putting together 60 bags of groceries. Moving in and out of the storage area, each loaded up a cart or sturdy box with a staple like rice, pasta, canned green beans, canned fruit, soup, boxed mac ‘n’ cheese, tuna, peanut butter or spaghetti sauce and methodically distributed it into the waiting bags. Once the staples are all distributed, in go the miscellaneous items like coconut milk or cake mix or horseradish sauce or seaweed snacks — whatever’s been donated.
   PAT SHARPE PACKS canned green beans into grocery bags last Thursday afternoon in the basement of St. Ambrose Church in Bristol. The Have a Heart Food Shelf distributes food on the third Friday of each month and volunteers pack the nonperishable goods the day before. 
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
At 4 p.m., 60 large brown grocery bags stood empty, lined up on three long tables waiting for food. By 5 o’clock, all 60 bags stood stuffed and ready to go. Other tables held still more bags, filled with bread (donated by Bimbo Bakeries in Williston) and cold cereal.
“There’s enough food in the bags for probably three or four days,” Stude-Price said.
At the top of the stairs several boxes held donated winter squash, harvested locally.
Just before the food shelf opens on Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. volunteers will organize fresh foods, including ground beef from Doug Butler’s farm in Middlebury, along with local eggs and cheese. These items are purchased monthly. Each household gets a numbered ticket to redeem at Bristol Beverage for a half gallon of milk. Bristol Beverage also partners in ordering the eggs and cheese. The school district food services handles the purchasing of foods that go through Have a Heart’s “Bites in a Bag” program, which sends kids in food-insecure households home each weekend with healthy snacks. Vermont Coffee Company donates coffee throughout the year.
In November and December, the grocery bags will include all the fixings to make a holiday meal to accompany the Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas hams, along with special items like pickles, olives and candy. Stude-Price said November and December grocery bags always include coffee “because you want to make it a special meal.”
Individual volunteers, businesses and groups around town pitch in in multiple ways. Some groups sign up to make a hot soup or casserole that gets packed in to-go containers on distribution nights (and so far this fall Yarn and Yoga, Eastern Star and New Haven Dairy 4-H are signed up). Stude-Price said she’s still looking for groups to sign up for February, April and May of 2018. New volunteer David Furney drives to Williston to pick up the donated bread. Some deliver food to those unable to make it to St. Ambrose.
Boy Scout and local church volunteers come each month to help cart groceries up the stairs and out to waiting cars (volunteers from the LDS church in Middlebury have sent volunteers). Some volunteers brave the cold to give out frozen turkeys, held in nature’s refrigerator straight from the back of the truck. New Haven Dairy 4-H will not only make a hot soup or casserole for November and December, they’ll be baking holiday cookies as well.
“We’re feeding a lot of people, hardworking people who live right here … I think it’s a very important thing for the community. It’s a sense of pride for the community that we have this here.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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