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Anti-Poverty Agency Plans For New Role In Vermont's Coronavirus Response

A person scoops soup into a container.
Peter Hirschfeld
Joey Buttendorf packs a to-go container of homemade soup for the food shelf at Capstone Community Action agency in Barre. The organization is figuring out ways to continue services while limiting in-person contact.

An anti-poverty organization in Washington County is expanding its mission as Vermont begins to grapple with the new realities of COVID-19.

The federal Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 established “community action programs” across the country to fight what then-President Lyndon B. Johnson dubbed the “War on Poverty.”

The Capstone Community Action Agency, in Washington County, has been waging that battle ever since. But executive director Sue Minter said the organization is ramping up additional services to help the region address a surge of anticipated need.

“We’re right now kind of inventorying our situation and the most acute needs, and we’re beginning to tackle them as quickly as we possibly can,” Minter said.

"We are trying to plan ... as strategically as we can to address a health crisis without focusing on the cost. And that may sound crazy ... but it is I think what the times call us to do." — Sue Minter, Capstone Community Action

On Monday afternoon, seven chefs-in-training were turning hundreds of pounds of raw ingredients into takeout meals for people that rely on the food shelf next door. Their no-nonsense instructor, Chef Joey Buttendorf, said these days especially, they’re cooking with an eye toward health.  

“We cooked a bunch of chili. We have corn bread,” Buttendorf said. “We’re making nutritious meals… that have lots of garlic, lots of onions, lots of vegetables to kind of boost the immune system for the people that need it and the kids that need it too.”

The arrival of the new coronavirus in Vermont is influencing just about everything that’s happening at Capstone. Monday was the last day, for example, that more than three people were allowed in the kitchen at a time.

Minter said the open-door policy Capstone has prided itself on is undergoing a shift, including at the food shelf, where people used to be able to come in and browse the shelves, “to make it like a shopping experience.”

“But now we realize we can’t have people coming in, so we are pre-bagging food for supplies that hopefully can serve families for maybe up to a week,” Minter said. “We’re committed to continuing our services but in a new way.”

Those services include the food shelf, crisis fuel aid, income tax assistance, financial literacy and workforce training.

Minter said Capstone is now readying itself, however, to meet the surge of new needs that may accompany the spread of COVID-19 in the region.

For the latest updates about the spread of COVID-19 in Vermont, head here.

On Tuesday for instance, Capstone opened up some office space in its building for the head of the local homeless shelter, called the Good Samaritan Haven.

Minter said the shelter won’t be able to admit sick people obviously.

“So we’re right now trying to find another place that could be taking some people while reducing the number of people in rooms at the existing shelter,” Minter said.

There will no doubt be other needs too, Minter said.

“We know that there is a large population of elder Vermonters who we also may need to help think about distributing goods to, so these are the kinds of things we’re thinking about as we think regionally,” Minter said.

The work could involve an enormous financial outlay, but Minter said Capstone can’t let cost be a barrier right now.

Former Gov. Peter Shumlin tapped Minter to lead Vermont’s recovery efforts after Tropical Storm Irene. She said COVID-19 is similar in scope to that disaster.

“We are trying to plan and make decisions as quickly as we can and as strategically as we can to address a health crisis without focusing on the cost. And that may sound crazy and it’s very different from normal times, but it is I think what the times call us to do,” Minter said.

State and federal lawmakers are currently drafting emergency aid measures to fund what could be a prolonged COVID-19 response. 

Have questions about COVID-19 in Vermont? Find a list of FAQs about the new coronavirus, here.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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