They came at the appointed hour to Westshire Elementary School in West Fairlee on Tuesday in minivans, pickups and aging sedans.
Then there was 4-year-old Ava Marie Pease who came pulling a tiny red wagon. Her doting grandfather, Allen Ordway, wasn’t far behind.
They left the school’s driveway with a wagon-load of bagged groceries. Some bags included boxes of rice, oatmeal, crackers and corn muffin mix. Others were filled with sweet potatoes, bell peppers and apples, along with milk, yogurt and a dozen fresh eggs.
After the coronarvirus pandemic hit, “we knew there were families who were going to need help, especially if people were laid off from their jobs,” said Jen Shatney, of West Fairlee.
Shatney is spearheading a small group of “mostly moms” that is determined no one will go hungry in West Fairlee and neighboring Vershire during these trying times.
Communities have “emergency plans for floods and blizzards, but a global pandemic?” Shatney said.
Without a how-to map, the women formed what they call — for lack of time to come up with anything catchier — the “Tuesday Noon Grocery Club.”
Starting three weeks ago, the club set up shop on the covered concrete walkway that runs along the outside of the school’s gym.
In a short time, Shatney and three or four other women have managed to collect food from several sources.
Willing Hands, a Norwich-based nonprofit that distributes fresh food — much of it fruits and vegetables from grocery stores that otherwise might go to waste — was already stopping in West Fairlee on Tuesdays.
Shatney’s group just had the produce rerouted from a church in town to the elementary school’s parking lot, where it’s bagged up.
Don Phoenix, who runs the weekly West Fairlee Foodshelf, has also been a big help. He turned over a $500 gift card that the Hannaford Supermarket in Bradford, Vt., had given to the foodshelf. Money from the foodshelf’s coffers is also being used to purchase groceries at discounted prices from Wing’s Market in Fairlee.
At noon on Tuesdays, people in need just have pull up to the curb outside the school gym. Shatney’s crew loads the groceries into their vehicles. Or in the case of Pease and Ordway, — their red wagon.
“This helps a lot,” said Ordway, who lives within walking distance of the school.
Ordway, a cook and dishwasher at Dartmouth College, has been out of work since the school sent students home last month.
In its first week, the grocery club provided food to 65 people. On Tuesday, it handed out groceries to nearly 30 families, totaling more than 80 people.
“For some people, this is all their food for the week, or close to it,” Shatney said.
A benchmark often used to gauge the depth of poverty in a community is the number of schoolchildren who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. According to the Vermont Agency of Education’s annual report, 55% of Westshire’s current students qualify for the federal program. The statewide average for 2019-20 school year is 38%.
“We have a lot of good things going for us,” Shatney said, “but wealth is not one of them.”
Westshire, which is part of the Rivendell Interstate School District, has about 90 students in grades K through 4 from West Fairlee and Vershire. It also offers a preschool program for 20 kids.
Like other public schools across the state, Westshire is handing out bagged breakfast and lunch meals to needy children on weekdays during the pandemic.
Shatney’s group, however, recognized the need went beyond Westshire pupils and their families. The pandemic has closed the West Fairlee Foodshelf, which is used by a fair number of elderly residents.
When a GMC pickup stopped, volunteer Nancy Cushman greeted the older woman in the passenger’s seat. “How you doing, neighbor?” asked Cushman, who has grandchildren who attend Westshire Elementary.
Cushman and the other volunteers seem to know everyone who stops by name — a benefit of small-town living. The women are also proactive. They’ve been calling people they think might need help. They also deliver to people who can’t make it on Tuesdays between noon and 1 p.m.
“These ladies are doing a heck of a job,” said Steve Malinoski, a member of the West Fairlee Selectboard.
On Tuesday, the 66-year-old Malinoski donned a face covering and pitched in with loading up cars. “I’m in one of the high-risk groups, but I was going nuts staying at home,” he said. “I’m glad to be helping out.”
Shatney, who was a teacher before becoming a stay-at-home mom, and her husband moved to West Fairlee about 10 years ago.
Shatney, who grew up in Essex Junction, Vt., lived in California and Connecticut before settling in West Fairlee. This is the first place that she’s felt part of the community.
“We’re small and mighty,” she said.
Shatney noticed a woman who drove up to the curb had only a loose handkerchief covering her face. Shatney handed her a homemade face covering bought from a local seamstress.
When the coronavirus outbreak forced The Mountain School in Vershire to close its campus this spring, it was “looking for a way to be useful during this crisis,” said Alison Baker, the school’s dining manager.
They found it in the Tuesday Noon Grocery Club.
The Mountain School’s culinary team, using meats and vegetables farmed at the school, is now preparing meals for the grocery club.
Each car that stops gets at least two meals to take home that can be heated up. Last week, chef Chris McGee made chili. On Tuesday, chef Matt Severson had prepared pesto pasta with roasted vegetables.
“It’s nice knowing we’ve given a few people one less thing to worry about,” Baker told me. “I wish we could do more. I wish we could cook a big meal and sit down all together at a time and talk about how we’re going to get each other through this.”
Jim Kenyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.