Chittenden East Supervisory Union
Joanne Russell, Chittenden East Supervisory Union central office employee, is according to her colleague, Sarah Haven, a VEHI PATH wellness rock star because of her community activism. Russell is putting her heart and soul into ensuring that fruits, vegetables, cheeses and meats pulled from local grocery store shelves and designated for the landfill are instead directed into the hands of families and senior citizens with limited resources. “My passion,” she said as her eyes teared up, “is all about reducing food waste and combating food insecurity. I enjoy feeding people and engaging with people around food because I am very social. I also know what it’s like to be food insecure as I once lived it (raising children on one income) for several years. I find it extremely sad that so many fresh whole fruits and veggies find their way to the landfill rather than into the homes of those families without access to these foods. I used to volunteer at local food shelves but found it quite discouraging because the food available to folks wasn’t fresh and the options were very limited. I didn’t think it was really meeting the needs of the population.”
Russell is one of several volunteers from a local church organization who travel to a Trader Joe’s enterprise in South Burlington once or twice weekly to pick up foods pulled from the shelves. The volunteers bring the food back to the church, create attractive displays on shelving and open their food hub to the public for a few hours on Saturday afternoons. “We are here to share bread and apples, strawberries and blueberries. Sometimes we even have flowers for people, a very nice added touch. Russell stressed that this program is not a charity. “There is no paper work individuals must fill out nor any proof of income eligibility necessary. You take what you need for the week.” As a result many senior citizens are now taking advantage of the program. “While we are helping to reduce food waste, we are also introducing individuals to foods they have never eaten such as Bok choy, eggplants and papaya. It costs you nothing to nothing to find out if you like it,” Russell said.
Additionally, because several people in their 20s and 30s know next to nothing about how to prepare foods, Russell and her crew provide clear instructions on how to cook veggies and how to use onions and garlic. Now in her third year of volunteering with this outreach program, Russell encourages folks she knows or meets to look out for their neighbors and if they see someone who could benefit from the program to encourage them to try it or offer them assistance in getting there. The food on the shelves that isn’t used is then given to a local pig farmer to fatten his hogs. He, in turn, gives the pork back to the food shelf. “I like that this process is full circle, she said proudly. The volunteer group is in the process of transitioning to a partnership with local farms. To further her mission, Russell is considering writing and publishing an instructional booklet about how to replicate partnerships between markets and communities based on her firsthand experience.
Russell has served as the supervisory union’s bookkeeper for 16 years. She lives in Starksboro, raised three children as a single mom and recent remarried. She is an active member of Hinesburg’s South County Chorus, a 100 member ensemble who practice weekly and perform for the community at large four times a year.