‘We need to DO something!’ SO many people were going to be in trouble.’: Woman creates food pantry to help community

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“‘A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.’ ~ Amelia Earhart

2020 proved to be an unforgettable year of stress, isolation, and change. However, these turbulent times also brought out resiliency, kindness, and strength. This is my story about how 2020 turned a tiny seed of an idea into a flourishing tree of hope and compassion in one Vermont community.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit our part of the world. This almost apocalyptic time felt unpredictable. No one really knew what was coming and it was scary. Within days, it became evident that many, many people were going to be in trouble. My first thought—how can we help? As a staff member in our local school district and member of the White River Jct. United Methodist Church, located in the heart of downtown White River Jct., I know first-hand about the many vulnerable populations in our community. I remember saying to my mom, ‘We need to do something!’ It felt urgent and important right then and there. Together, we brainstormed for two days and came up with a plan. We bought tote boxes, a bunch of food, then set them up in the church driveway with a sign: ‘Free Food for All.’ I advertised it on Facebook, asking the community to help us spread the word.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

Within one hour, the totes were completely empty. We looked at each other shocked, knowing this was really the start of something. Since then, we have never looked back! That first week, I reached out to a couple local markets, seeking their assistance. They generously donated fresh produce, prepared foods, and baked goods consistently, which allowed us to provide so much more than simply non-perishable goods. We connected with the organization providing the school lunches for our district to receive the daily leftover meals all the way through the summer—over 1,500 meals were distributed at our site in total! If not for these supporters, we would never have gotten to this point.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

With warm weather approaching, we were back to the drawing board about how to move forward. We had a new dream of a sustainable pantry complete with a refrigerator, but how? After much researching, I connected with a local organization that offered to help me build a structure. We drew up building plans, had local lumber and shingles donated, and we were in business! After three unusually hot (for Vermont) May days, the Sharing & Caring Food Pantry was officially created! Our over 500-pound simple wooden shed-like pantry stands tall and strong at the front of our church. It unwaveringly withstands pelting rain, beating sun, raging snowstorms, even below-zero degree weather to consistently offer refuge to all. Our light is always on and our doors are always unlocked for anyone in need to access, regardless of the time of day or weather. Open the doors to find a full pantry with six shelves, as well as a small refrigerator/freezer.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli
Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

We continue to strive to provide quality, nourishing food for all. Keeping this mission in mind, we stock a wide variety of nonperishable items, fresh produce, milk, bread, and other occasional forms of dairy/protein at all times. The community spoke and we listened! They asked us to provide personal care items and pet food, so we also carry those items. Our motto: Take what you need, give what you can! Sharing really is caring! We have tried to promote this seemingly simple notion from day one. I believe everyone has something to give and I think our pantry exemplifies exactly this. During the first couple days of operating the totes, a woman approached me, asking if I was the one doing the food. She explained she had been wandering around town hungry the night before, but the stores were closed and she had no food source until the next day. She saw our sign, checked the totes, and found some food that helped her through the night.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

The next day, she visited the store and amongst her much needed groceries, she chose to pick up a jar of peanut butter to return to the totes because, ‘That might help someone else, like you helped me.’ This story has stuck with me because this simple act—one jar of peanut butter was what she could give in the moment, and it did help someone else. Every single donation, no matter how big or small, will go on to help others in need. When I decided to set those totes out in the driveway, I never expected for this to grow into what it has now become. My goal was simply to help people because no one should have to struggle for food. Food is a necessity, not a privilege. It was clear from the beginning there was a huge need and we were filling a necessary gap. Between our location and focus on anonymity, we successfully reach a variety of our most vulnerable populations, from a single parent out of work, a currently homeless individual living out of a tent, to someone who simply needs something to get through to tomorrow, and so many more.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

I believe no one should feel scared or embarrassed to seek help and hope to be helping to remove the stigma around food insecurity. Our wide outreach and anonymous setup directly impacts the respect, dignity, and welfare of people in unjust circumstances in our area. They say the way to one’s heart is through their stomach. I feel we not only feed our visitors’ stomachs, but also their hearts and souls. Initially, we never saw anyone who visited, but we knew they were coming because the totes were empty! Eventually, I began noticing certain visitors hanging around down the street waiting for me to leave before they came. We have always respected our visitors’ right to privacy, but our curiosity grew about these people and their stories. One by one, over time, they started moving closer, but still did not want to engage with me. I consistently filled the totes/pantry 4-5 times per day, so I think I became a familiar, friendly face with a smile for them.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

I will never forget the first day I finally received a ‘hi’ back from one of our regular visitors! I knew the door was beginning to open. This particular woman soon began sharing bits and pieces of her story with me. By summer, I learned she had several brain tumors and was awaiting surgery to try to remove them. Through our church’s prayer shawl ministry, we prayed over and gifted her with a shawl to show our support through this difficult time. I am happy to report that after waiting over six months, she is home recovering from her successful surgery! I recently saw her for the first time post-surgery and she kept saying, ‘I am so happy to see you!’ We strive to provide food, but we are proud that we offer much, much more. With every mountain comes a valley, and we have certainly faced our fair share. We knew there could be a downside to having open access available 24/7 for visitors. This was proven through several unfortunate incidents of stolen and broken property, vandalism, and even a break-in to our building.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

Our main priority is fighting food insecurity, but a close second priority is helping eliminate food waste. All of our perishable items would be thrown away, if they were not rehomed to those in need through our site and others. When individuals choose to vandalize us by throwing food around our property and downtown, it directly impacts others who need it. It is incredibly frustrating to see such hateful actions toward a helpful resource for many. We were encouraged repeatedly to lock our pantry doors at night, move all the food inside overnight, or to stop altogether. I fully believe love triumphs over hate, so with the help of our friends and neighbors, we chose to push forward with our mission. We estimate well over 150 individuals and families utilize our pantry weekly. This was no longer just about our feelings, but the wellbeing of so many others beyond us.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

The Sharing & Caring Food Pantry would not exist if not for the kindness of this incredible community. On a simple wing and a prayer (and a Facebook post!), they hopped on board to help bring my dream to fruition. From sharing our social media posts, donating a spare can or two, offering volunteer time, or arranging a food drive for us, I never cease to be impressed with the creativity and generosity we receive. Over the summer, we began noticing homemade sandwiches carefully placed inside the fridge a couple times per week. It slowly increased to almost daily, and we wondered, who is our sandwich angel? One day, we happened to bump into the woman behind the mystery, now affectionately coined ‘The Sandwich Lady’ by our grateful recipients. She repurposes food found in our pantry to craft thoughtful, creative varieties of sandwiches, including peanut butter and honey, deli meat and cheese, breakfast sandwiches, grilled cheese, and so many more! She has shared with me that she takes such joy out of trying new combinations and giving back in a fun way for her. This is only one example of many that outlines the beautiful nature of give and take from this pantry.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

I like to think of the pantry as a constant ‘paying it forward’ site. So many of our regular visitors actively watch for ways to help us or give back. If they receive food they cannot eat or use, they bring it to the pantry to swap out for something they can use. It is a true win-win, so they do not feel guilty for taking what they need while helping someone else who can use that item. We are located adjacent from a low-income senior housing apartment complex, where just about every single resident utilizes our pantry regularly. They have expressed to me the difficulties of living on a fixed income and how appreciative they are to have a place to find a special treat they could not afford, or even a meal for those nights they did not feel like cooking for one. In return, we have gained a self-titled group of ‘Granny Vigilantes’ who tidy up inside the pantry on their daily walks, keep a close watch on the pantry activities, and help with odd jobs whenever possible. Giving can look like so many things and sometimes the gift of time is the best gift you can give.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

Since conception, our pantry has been taken from a simple idea and transformed into a community hub of connections over the commonality of one thing: food. I never realized how much I, personally, would be impacted by starting this endeavor. The realization that many of these individuals have been our neighbors for years, yet I did not know any of them until now, continues to surprise me. I have come to learn so many by name—these are all real people we really get to help every single day. There are times I drive up and think, ‘Wow! We are really doing this!’ Or I open the doors to find a donation or a kind, handwritten note and am again reminded of the impact we are making. I think at the end of the day I am the lucky one for knowing we really can and are making a difference in so many people’s lives. I am forever changed through the relationships and newfound friendships the pantry has brought into my life. This is a long, uphill battle, but I am confident we are helping and someday we will be able to put an end to food insecurity.

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

If you’re local to our area, donations are always welcome to be dropped directly into the pantry. If you wish to make a larger donation or organize a food drive, please contact us to arrange! Our Amazon Wish List is a great way to donate food from absolutely anywhere that will be shipped directly to me! We also accept monetary donations by mailing to:

White River Jct. United Methodist Church

Attn: Sharing & Caring Food Pantry

106 Gates St.

White River Jct., VT 05001″

Courtesy of Hannah Cerasoli

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Hannah Cerasoli of White River Jct., Vermont. You can follow her journey on Instagram, and you can follow her church on Facebook and their website.  Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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