A recent move of the volunteer-run Willing Hands Produce Drop from a smaller location to the Cornish Town Hall is helping local residents and families more easily take home nutritious meal options. The new venue, coupled with recent changes to the pick-up process, now offers a more streamlined experience and more room for visitors to browse donated items, with no pre-qualifier to take part.
"Our goal is to help people stretch their budget and eat healthy," said volunteer and program organizer Pam Annis a phone interview on Wednesday, July 11. "If someone is interested in doing that, they are welcome."
Willing Hands Produce Drop relocated six weeks ago to the Cornish Town Hall, at 488 Town House Road, where residents from Cornish, Claremont, Plainfield, Meriden and surrounding areas are welcome in a relaxing, nonjudgemental environment, according to Annis.
Annis said she and a group of about a dozen volunteers oversee the food donation program, which was begun in earnest last June, housed in a small, kitchen-style setup with tables and a refrigerator at the fire station on Route 120.
That setup was working well enough. "But the numbers were growing, and parking was a problem," she said, since the volunteer fire department could receive a call at any time and would need access to the parking area.
Annis said she received a call several weeks ago from the Cornish Selectboard, offering the use of the Town Hall for the food donation program. The board had discussed the move at its May 4 regular meeting, noting that the group would be moving to the Town Hall in mid-May, and mentioning the replacement of a refrigerator in anticipation of that move.
"I was optimistic that it was better," she said.
Since then, the move has provided much more space both in the building, and for parking.
At the new location, the group of volunteers now have a kitchen with a refrigerator, coolers, and tables. The move has provided much more space both in the building and for parking.
The Willing Hands volunteers meet quarterly to evaluate how things are going, and to discuss community feedback and suggestions. At one suggestion, they have recently implemented a new process of picking up food. Instead of first-come, first-served, which left little for those who could not arrive early, people now pick numbers randomly each week and come into the food pantry in groups of six, depending on the numbers they get, to browse without being crowded. Anyone with a cane, walker, or other assisted-mobility device can go first, Annis said.
The line tends to move through quickly and the method seems to be working, she said. On some days, when they start at 11:45 a.m., the group may see 30 people by noon — so the new system also helps those who can't always get there early to have regular chances to browse the full selection before items run low or out.
"We want as many people as possible to have choices," she said. "It makes it fair for everyone."
They typically have six tables set up, and now have the ability to spread out more. At the new location, volunteers can now also store baskets and other supplies, eliminating the need to transport them each week.
"It's much less crowded," she said. "It's a comfortable, relaxing place to go."
Willing Hands Produce Drop is intended to supplement, as opposed to being a primary source of food. It receives donations from the food pantry in Plainfield, and most weeks, some sort of meat is available. The Willing Hands group also has gardens to grow produce, Annis said.
The group often has eggs donated by local chicken farmers and families, and last year occasionally received squash and other fresh produce. They have not yet received any garden produce this summer, because some gardeners are experiencing a delay, but hope to receive some soon, she said.
Some of the foods offered each week are limited, depending on what is in season or available. Other times, when an item is plentiful, such as fresh spinach, volunteers will be there to help bag it as visitors come through.
The Produce Drop, along with assisting anyone who needs it, is also a social venue — a place to greet and catch up, and welcoming to all, Annis said.
"People are comfortable coming. We are not judging anyone coming in. We're welcoming people," she said.
Annis said that about a third of the families who use the service live in Cornish, Meriden, or Plainfield, and that another third reside in Claremont, and the rest come in from other communities.
Each week, recently, Willing Hands has seen about 35-45 families come in for fresh foods once a week.
Willing Hands, which Annis described as simply a volunteer group, began last June with "just a couple of us to start," and then eventually spouses started helping, and others stepped forward to assist, she said. She oversees a volunteer schedule for the dozen or so volunteers, but said that other people come in from time to time just to help.
"It's a social time, and a feel-good opportunity," she said. "People enjoy helping."
In June 2018, the group helped provide food for 356 people. About half of those were senior citizens.
With the growing season underway now, Annis said the group is hopeful that anyone with an abundance of fresh produce to share may drop some off. Donations should be dropped off by 11:30 a.m. if possible.
Food is available for pick-up each Wednesday from 11:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.
Annis said that anyone is welcome to drop in, even if they are not seeking the service, but just wish to have a look at the new location.
For more information, drop in during open hours or call Annis at (603) 542-3781.
-- TORY DENIS