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National Guard distributes 112,000 meals at Rutland airport

Soldiers from the Vermont Army National Guard distribute boxes of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) at the Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport in North Clarendon on Friday, April 24, 2020. People received one week’s worth of food per household. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

By Alan J. Keays/VTDigger

NORTH CLARENDON — Shawn Dayton, 35, of Rutland, drove out of the Rutland Southern Vermont Airport in North Clarendon on Friday, April 24, with a supply of food for his family of five. Dayton lost his job when the restaurant where he worked was forced to close as part of the state’s efforts to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Just making sure I can feed my kids is a worry,” he said.

When he pulled out of the airport parking lot late Friday, Dayton had five boxes of MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. Each box provides 16 meals, or enough for one person for one week.

Dayton was one of hundreds of people who traveled to the state airport Friday to get food, which was being distributed by about 15 members of the Vermont National Guard.

“It gives me a little bit of hope that there’s people reaching out and helping out each other,” Dayton said. “It’s uncertain times but we’re all in this together.”

The event was part of a joint distribution effort between the Vermont Foodbank and the Guard to get the MREs, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to Vermonters who need them.

The demand has been so strong at the first two of five planned food distributions that organizers have had to postpone the three events planned for next week by a couple of days.

More than 40,000 of the meals were distributed Wednesday in Swanton — nearly twice what organizers had expected. Another 112,000 meals were distributed Friday in Rutland County, topping the projected 94,000 meals that had initially been stocked for the event.

Soldiers from the Vermont Army National Guard distribute boxes of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) at the Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport in North Clarendon on Friday, April 24, 2020. People received one week’s worth of food per household. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, said with the skyrocketing number of people out of work because of business closures related to efforts to contain the virus, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Vermonters who are food insecure. Interim Department of Labor Commissioner Mike Harrington said Friday, April 24,  that the state’s unemployment rate, which was about 2.4% when the pandemic closed jobs in March, is now fluctuating at between 20% and 23%.

“We knew we were going to need a big infusion of resources,” Sayles said of the idea to seek out the MREs.

“We want to make sure that people have at least a week’s worth of meals,” he said. “Keep in mind, too, that this is likely supplemental to what people have in their families. It may help stretch what people have in their pantries.”

The Guard, Sayles said, stepped forward and offered to assist with the distribution, using their vehicles to truck the pallets of meals around the state, along with soldiers to staff the five events. Each truckload carries cardboard boxes packed with about 27,000 meals.

Sayles projected more than 300,000 meals will be handed out in total around Vermont.

“With each event it seems to be growing as more people learn about it,” he said.

Three other distribution events that had been set for earlier this week in Springfield, Bennington and Newport,  have been pushed back two days each to allow organizers to replenish the MRE supplies.

The MREs come from a FEMA distribution center in Franklin, Massachusetts, according to Sayles.

At the airport in North Clarendon on Friday, organizers anticipated that demand would be high, and had already bumped up the meals on hand to 94,080, or about 140 pallets, Sgt. Caleb Lewis of the Vermont National Guard said Friday morning.

By late afternoon, organizers had to resupply the Rutland County site with even more MREs. With one hour still to go late Friday afternoon organizers were expecting to hand out 7,000 boxes of food. And with each box containing 16 meals, that’s a total of 112,000 meals.

Every packaged meal includes a variety of food products, including pastas and chili. In addition to an entree, the packages contain a side dish, crackers, dessert, candy, and a beverage mix, like coffee, as well as the flameless ration heater, a pouch of water, and utensils.

A line of vehicles stretched more than half a mile down Airport Road before the event started at 9 a.m. Friday. By 10:30 a.m., the traffic on the road had cleared and a steady stream of vehicles were pulling into the airport parking lot, where drivers were funneled by lines of orange cones.

The soldiers, all wearing masks, worked to keep a 6-foot distance from each other and the people in their cars.

Motorists didn’t  get out of their vehicles. They popped open doors, trunks, and hatchbacks for Guard members to load up the boxes of food.

Each person was able to get one box of food for each member of their family. They could also pick up a box for others.

“Some people are picking up for their neighbors, some people are picking up for their parents,” Lewis, of the Vermont National Guard, said.

Sayles said he is encouraging people who are newly food insecure due to a recent job loss to make sure they seek out all available resources, including benefits through 3SquaresVT — the state’s arm of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Also, children under 18 can get meals through their local schools, which can be picked up at specific sites or, in some cases, are delivered.

Josh White, 41, of Poultney, said he learned of the event Friday in Rutland County through word of mouth.

“My good friend from the military told me to come and get some food,” said White, adding his supply had been running low. White, who described himself as a seasonal worker, said he is currently out of work.

“Everything is tight,” he said.

A woman who was driving out of the airport Friday with a box of food said she was thankful not just for the food, but that she was able to stay socially distanced from others.

“I’m 74 years old, it’s saving me from having to go into the grocery store,” said the woman, who only identified herself as Emily. “Now I don’t have to risk my life shopping.”

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