Community Engaged Zen Practice

Hello Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Sangha,

We’ve been cooking up some good stuff this past month. The three-week pop-up initiative, Food for Families, which started on August 17th finished up on September 4th.  During a three week gap in the federal school lunch program in Addison County, we were able to be the hub for a coordinated response the need for food. With the help of donors, volunteers, and local church groups, and through the window of our food truck, StreetGreens, we provided groceries for over 8,000 meals to county neighbors in a food crisis. Thank you to all of you who lent a hand!

We’ve been working with a concept of Community Engaged Zen Practice. It means practice with not-knowing, bearing witness, and taking action close to home – right were we live. A few weeks ago, a school principle called to us let us know that the free summer school meal program would be taking a break for three weeks and many families, left food insecure by Covid and other factors, would be without adequate food for their kids. The Food for Families initiative popped up.

In all, an average of 275 Addison County residents in 65 families per week accessed Food for Families. They were given enough food for two meals a day for five days each week for three weeks for each member of the family. Our best calculation is that Food for Families gave away enough food for about 8,000 meals during this three week period. The amount and variety of food we made available was determined using national food shelf guidelines for nutrition for children and adults. We did our best to make the selections varied, appealing, high-quality, healthy, and bountiful. We heard from many that the program was not only important in addressing hunger in their families, but the atmosphere and the options were enjoyable and fun. In addition to food, we gave away books, games, toys and school supplies. We offered homemade individually wrapped cookies as people pulled up in their cars, and we enjoyed a few moments of conversation as people waited for the car in front of them to move through each food station. As the weeks went on, we got more relaxed with the returning neighbors. There was no shortage of humor alongside poignant stories and, as you might imagine, concerns about the wellbeing of their families and worries about the start of the school year.

In addition to school-age children of all ages, many families included extended family members who were vulnerable and food-insecure due to age or health status, as well as employment and economic circumstances. There were a number of very large families, families with foster children, and families who were providing low-cost childcare.

We did most of the shopping for bulk groceries at Costco, making two runs per week. But we also want to thank Greg’s Meat Market for making 120 lbs of ground beef available to us at sale price, and the Middlebury Coop for the donation of delicious local apples. We also received nearly all of the vegetables we gave away from HOPE, and we are very grateful for the ease of working with them and their generosity. A local neighbor also donated bushels of apples the perfect size for little kids, someone else baked hundreds of individually wrapped yummy cookies which were a bit hit, and Hannah Sessions at Blue Ledge Farms has designated Food for Families as the beneficiary of a portion of their sales at the Coop this weekend.

Cash donations for Food for Families received from more donors than I can count right now were extremely generous. People know how serious food insecurity is in our communities, and they responded. Many local people gave to the initiative, including incredibly generous gifts from members of Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society (CVUUS), Salisbury Congregational Church, St. Stephen’s Episcopal, the Middlebury Congregational Church, and the local Bread Loaf Mountain sangha. The extended (outside of Vermont) Bread Loaf Mountain sangha was also extraordinarily generous and sent along much-appreciated notes of support and encouragement.

We haven’t yet done a final calculation, but I expect that we used 80% of donations that came in over the past month on Food for Families. We will use all of the remaining donations designated for food for local food access programs and to continue the work of our free food truck, StreetGreens. In the coming weeks, we will send out tax-deduction gift acknowledgement letters to donors.

Volunteer turnout remained strong throughout the initiative. Thanks to the Middlebury Area Clergy Association, we had volunteer assistance from many local religious congregations including CVUUS, St. Stephen’s and the Society of Friends, in addition to the Bread Loaf Mountain sangha. The Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society was an essential partner in many ways: it made space available for us to store food and inventory, got the word out, encouraged donations, and offered ongoing encouragement and support through Rev. Barnaby and many of its members.

I want to say a special word of thanks to the school principals, especially Fernanda Canales at the Salisbury Community School, who alerted us to this need. The schools did an excellent job of getting the word out to families about our Food for Families program. Also, Hunger Free Vermont and our local Hunger Council were very responsive and helpful in making important connections. Finally, the Bread Loaf Mountain Zen community, and especially those in residential practice – Tabor, Ben, Iris, Daigan, Ellen and Peggy, and our good friends Luna and Jonas. They all showed up for this unanticipated undertaking with great skill, commitment, ease and joy.

We heard many stories of hardship over the weeks. Even though the school-based meal program will start again next week, clearly the need for care and support to our financially struggling neighbors will remain. According to the Poor People’s Campaign and the Institute for Policy Studies, even before Covid, 35% of Vermonters – 216,000 residents – were considered poor or low income. Many of them are food insecure. Local hunger organizations anticipate a very significant increase in that number due to Covid, and they expect the need to remain high for the next 12 to 24 months. Please visit Hunger Free Vermont for the latest statistics on food insecurity in Vermont and how you might help address the systemic issues that perpetuate it. HOPE is an essential local resource for us here in Addison County.

In an old story, a Zen master is asked, “What is the most important teaching?” The answer was simple: “An appropriate response.” There is a great value placed on the ability to respond to what is needed in a generous, well-considered and precise way without hesitation. I am touched by what we accomplished together in the spirit of spontaneity, hospitality, generosity and unity. Thank you.

With joy,
Joshin and all of us in the Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community

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