The rows of shelving inside a small Center Rd. storefront were largely empty last week, dotted with a few jars of peanut butter and tomato sauce. Folding chairs arranged in a circle pointed to a neatly written to-do list on a nearby whiteboard.
By the end of the month, the cozy space is set to become Essex’s first permanent food shelf, a year and a half in the making.
Starting August 26, the non-profit called Aunt Dot’s Place will be open on Saturdays from 9 to 11 a.m., later expanding to Tuesdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and Thursdays from 9 to 11 a.m. once a volunteer team is in place, board president Andrea Francalangia said.
A special educator at Founders Memorial School, Francalangia innocently first responded to an email seeking volunteers for the then-prospective food shelf, eager to try and help her community. She walked out of the first meeting as board president.
From the start, she said the biggest challenge was finding space to host the service. Organizers knew proximity to the bus route was a must, as was ample parking, handicap accessibility and a private entrance.
“It can be embarrassing for people to come get food or demoralizing, so we wanted them to keep dignity,” Francalangia said.
Pomerleau Real Estate offered the current location for a heavily reduced rent, checking off every item on the group’s wish list. From there, Francalangia said it was easier to source donations.
One resident has even offered to match monetary contributions up to $8,000, she said.
When the food shelf first opens, patrons will receive one bag of food. Once supplies increase, Francalangia said organizers hope to let visitors shop the shelves themselves.
Even with only weekly openings, Aunt Dot’s Place will offer more hours than the current local alternatives. Heavenly Pantry, based at the First Congregational Church in Essex Jct., is open twice a month. The Jericho food shelf is open just once monthly.
Requiring a much farther trip, the Williston food shelf is open three times a week and serves about 400 Essex residents — a statistic that more than proves a permanent local pantry is essential for the state’s second largest town, Francalangia said.
“There are all these little things that are trying to meet the demand,” she said. “We’re hoping that once we’re up, open and established, we can work together.”
Francalangia said she’s seen the need for a frequently open food shelf firsthand in her job, where kids often come to school hungry.
Data published by the Vermont Agency of Education shows more than 25 percent of students in Essex’s two school districts qualified for free or reduced lunch in the 2016-17 school year, an indicator of low family income.
“We see all of these new apartments going up, and the socioeconomic status has changed, I think, generally all over,” Francalangia said. “I did wonder if people [would question the necessity], but so far it has been really well received.”
Still, the organization needs to grow its volunteer team, currently 12 strong. Sign-ups can work at the food shelf during open shifts, collect food from local grocery stores, accept Vermont Foodbank deliveries and more.
Monetary donations are appreciated, too, as the organization can use its available resources to buy more food per dollar, Francalangia said.
Residents interested in volunteering or donating can email email@example.com to coordinate a drop-off time. Currently, the food shelf is especially in need of paper products and feminine hygiene supplies and is still looking for chairs, refrigerators and freezers.
“We’re starting with nothing,” Francalangia said.