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'Boots On The Ground:' National Guard Deploys MREs To Vermonters

People in military uniforms next to piles of cardboard boxes.
Abagael Giles
As snow fell Wednesday morning, the Vermont National Guard distributed thousands of Meals Ready-To-Eat to Vermonters at the state airport in Franklin County.

Updated 5:15 p.m. 4/24/2020

As late April snow fell over Northern Vermont on Wednesday morning, uniformed soldiers from the Vermont National Guard unloaded an armored truck's worth of pallets full of meals ready-to-eat at the Franklin County Airport.

It was the first time since Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in 2011 that the guard has deployed this tactic — a joint venture with the Vermont Foodbank.

Sign posted in a field
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
At the entrance to the Franklin County State Airport, a sign directed drivers to the makeshift foodbank on Wednesday morning. A similar sign sat at the center of Highgate village

The guardsmen were prepared with 31 pallets of MREs, the equivalent of just under 24,000 meals.

“That’s easily enough food to supply an entire battalion,” said Sgt. Christien Charlebois, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the mission.

Cars began rolling up to the airport in a line at 9 a.m., and as they pulled around in a queue, soldiers armed with masks and gloves asked each car how many boxes they needed before loading them into the trunk or truck bed. The Vermont Foodbank allotted one seven-day supply of MREs for each member of a household.

The only requirement to receive aid was that recipients be a Vermont resident. Most were collecting meals for themselves or for vulnerable neighbors. Three came to bring Boxes ‘O Joe for the soldiers who worked in the snow.

By 11:30 a.m., all of the MREs were gone.

More from VPR: As Traffic At Food Shelves Spikes, Vermont Launches ‘Mass Feeding Plan’

“We had to turn away 100 people,” Charlebois said. He said that at 3 p.m. his team was still seeing about five vehicles per minute. 

“As we speak, we have two trucks and two trailers on their way up the road from our other reserve at the Rutland Food Bank to deliver an additional 35 pallets this afternoon," Charlebois said. Those pallets carried an additional 26,880 MREs.

Soldiers wear masks, load boxes into car
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
A crew of 19 Vermont National Guard members from three battalions loaded boxes of MREs into the trunks of cars at Franklin County's airport on April 22.

Charlebois said it was hard for the soldiers on the ground to turn people away. He ran similar missions for the National Guard in 2011 following Tropical Storm Irene, just a few months after returning from a deployment to Afghanistan.

“Then… there was not a lot of planning that could take place before action was required," he said. "We were trying to get truckloads of water and food to areas of the state where we weren’t even sure if there were still roads to get it there."

This time, things are different. Charlebois said there has been more time to plan, and this mission represents a valuable opportunity to assess the need for food and staples in communities by getting boots on the ground.

“When you start a situation like this, you don’t know exactly what the need is going to be,” he said.

As it turns out, the need was great.

Soldier wears mask, stands by pallets on truck
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
After an hour and a half, the truck that carried 31 pallets, each stacked with 48 cases of 12 MREs, was piled high with empty pallets.

Why Meals Ready-To-Eat?

According to John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, these MREs are some of the first rounds of emergency food resources Vermont is seeing from FEMA since Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency on March 13.

Vermont’s emergency management team has in place a scheme for emergency food distribution as part of the state’s Emergency Management Plan, which involves activating designated “points of distribution," or PODs, across Vermont — primarily small state airports — under a state of emergency. The National Guard was already trained in activating these sites, and so partnered with the Vermont Foodbank on the mission.

Wednesday’s event in Swanton was the first of five scheduled over the next week at POD sites across the state. The others will be located in North Clarendon, North Springfield, Bennington and Newport.

So why distribute dehydrated MREs rather than conventional shelf-stable food? According to Sayles, the answer is: geography.

He said FEMA has stockpiles of MREs in Massachusetts, making it fairly quick to get them to Vermont in large quantities. The Vermont Foodbank currently has a trailer load each at their Barre, Brattleboro and Rutland food distribution centers.

FEMA also offers states pre-packaged multi-day boxes of conventional food, “but those have a longer lag time,” Sayles said. The Vermont Foodbank placed its first order for truckloads of goods like peanut butter, canned chicken and pasta about a month ago.

Sayles said he’s worried many Vermonters can’t wait much longer for food assistance.

Watch cars file into the Franklin County Airport Wednesday morning as soldiers from the Vermont National Guard distribute the last crate of MREs in the video below:

“In Island Pond last week, we did a distribution where we usually see 40 families. Eighty showed up and almost completely emptied the food shelf,” he said, adding that incident reflects a statewide trend. He added that while supply chains to food shelves and grocery stores remain strong, “there is increased demand, and people are feeling vulnerable.”

Sayles said this week’s deliveries of three truckloads of MREs across the state will just be the beginning.

State officials estimate the unemployment rate could be at least 20% and, more than a month into the pandemic, many Vermonters have reported experiencing delays as they apply for unemployment benefits, even as the state has expanded its efforts to get claims processed.

In a VPR-Vermont PBS survey released in October, 2019, 40% of respondents, all Vermont residents, said they would not be able to afford an unplanned $1,000 expense right away.

More from VPR: 'I Ran Out Of Money At The Grocery Store:' A Tough Month For Laid Off Vermonters

“For folks like that to lose their jobs, even with one-time aid coming in, unemployment coming in, the entire cushion and more is gone,” Sayles said. “It just takes a long time to recover from that.”

For context, Sayles said, in the months after Irene, the Vermont National Guard distributed 17 massive truckloads of the meals to Vermonters. 

National Guard Truck with pallets
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
VPR file
An armored vehicle supplied 31 pallets of MREs to the state airport in Swanton on April 22. The Vermont National Guard and Vermont Foodbank called in two more trucks from Rutland midday to meet the overwhelming demand they encountered.

Boots on the ground

Despite the somber nature of Wednesday’s mission and the subfreezing temperatures, the atmosphere at the airport was congenial. Though everyone was wearing a mask, you could still see evidence of smiles writ large around soldiers’ eyes. There was hot coffee and a lot of  "thank yous" audible over the wind from cars passing through.

At one point, a car passenger reached a gloved hand out the window to a soldier, who’d just handed him a box of MREs, for a handshake. After looking around to see if anyone was looking, the masked guardsman reached forward to shake the man’s hand, his other gloved hand on the roof of the car.

Side by side portraits of Vermont National Guard members, one holding a coffee, another holding flyers.
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
The atmosphere at Wednesday's meal handout in Swanton was congenial, with some cars bringing hot coffee for Vermont National Guard members.

For the most part, the solders maintained distance from each other, passing or tossing boxes and stacking pallets on the long truck.

More from VPR: What Vermonters Need — And How You Can Help — In Response to COVID-19

“When you’re trying to bring people aid, you want them to feel comfortable,” Charlebois said. "People are concerned, people are scared. And it's justified with everything that's going on in the country and the world. We wanted people to know they were safe and protected when picking up food.”

He said this pandemic presents a unique set of challenges for the Guard.

soldiers load truck
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
Soldiers load the back of a truck with cases of MREs.

“We are an organization that can supply a great deal of manpower to a particular place very quickly, and in this situation, we’re trying to think about how to do that without so much manpower and with social distancing," Charlebois said.

That said, he added that they’re ready.

“Situations like this, where we have a pandemic or if there was a hurricane… these are the reasons why we have a National Guard that is separate from the active duty Army, so we can provide aid and manpower in conjunction with local state and national organizations to try to alleviate as much of that hardship as possible.”

Have questions, comments, concerns or experiences you want to share about the coronavirus? Fill out VPR’s brief survey here.

portrait of soldiers wearing masks
Credit Abagael Giles / VPR
Guardsmen armed with masks and gloves aimed to offer Franklin County residents two things: Meals Ready-To-Eat and comfort -- both from a social distance.

Charlebois said that while the pandemic has exacerbated need in Vermont, he's not so sure that the more than 600 cars that arrived seeking food at yesterday's event were experiencing harship due to COVID-19 alone. 

"Unfortunately, we are not a country that is free and clear of poverty, that is free and clear of homelessness," he said. "Those things always exist."

Are you or a neighbor experiencing hunger? Here's where to pick up MREs

The Vermont National Guard and Vermont Foodbank will distribute MREs to Vermont residents at the sites below, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on each day, or as resources allow. 

Those in need can go to the locations on the appointed day and receive a seven-day supply of Meals Ready-to-Eat for each member of their household. Those who are ill, have been advised to quarantine or lack transportation can send a friend or relative to pick up meals for them.

For tips about how to safely pick up and deliver groceries for a neighbor or relative, head here.

Friday, April 24: Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport: 1002 Airport Road, North Clarendon

Wednesday, April 29: Hartness State Airport: 15 Airport Road, North Springfield

Thursday, April 30: William H. Morse State Airport: 1563 Walloomsac Road, Bennington

Friday, May 1: Northeast Kingdom International Airport: 2628 Airport Road, Newport

Friday, May 1: Folsom Education Center: 75 South Street, South Hero

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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