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June 9, 2020

UVM graduate student Sam Bliss is getting used to random food packages showing up outside his front door.

“Sometimes it’s 40 packs of rice noodles,” says Bliss. “Other times it’s potatoes. So many potatoes. They’re beginning to sprout in my basement.”

The food donations are a good problem for the PhD student to have. They’ve enabled Bliss and classmates Lindsay Barbieri, Meg Egler and Molly Meehan to provide over 2,000 free meals to Burlington’s homeless population, and others in need, during the COVID-19 crisis.

Before the pandemic, the UVM students served free meals on Sundays in downtown Burlington with the local chapter of Food Not Bombs. But when the COVID-19 outbreak closed many restaurants and services in March, the group started working seven days a week, serving between 20 to 100 people daily.

“Connecting academics and the community is so important,” says Lindsay Barbieri, a graduate student from Natick, Mass., who uses drones and other technologies to study the ecological and social impacts of growing and distributing food. She’s one of the group’s 12 volunteers.

Sam Bliss standing next to a brick ledge lined with meals in disposable containers

Sharing food, not the virus

Wearing masks and gloves, the group gives out individually-packaged meals from a downtown parking garage. When the city created a temporary homeless shelter in a North Beach campsite, they brought meals there. Local motels too.

“The goal is to share food without sharing the virus that causes COVID-19,” says Bliss, a native of Seattle, Wash. “We want to safely help those people who might be slipping through the cracks of services and responses to this crisis.” Like Barbieri, Bliss is a Gund Graduate Fellow from the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

“Gathering and contact is normally one of the most important parts of sharing food, so it’s objectively less fun to share food right now,” he adds. “But it’s objectively more important.”

Eateries such as New Moon Café and Kountry Kart Deli donate sandwiches daily. The group also receives regular donations from Dunkin’ Donuts and August First Bakery. The rest of the meals are cooked by the volunteers, everything from quinoa salad to mac and cheese. Most of the food would otherwise become food waste that restaurants and grocery stores can’t sell before it expires.

Lindsay Barbieri, Megan Egler, and Sam Bliss stand in front of the Food Not Bombs donation tent

People helping people

For Bliss, whose PhD research investigates non-market food systems – from food banks to meal distribution initiatives – the COVID-19 crisis has meant putting his research into real-world action.

“People are reporting more food insecurity and need,” he says. “We’re seeing conventional food systems breaking down. It shows how important strong systems are for feeding people, especially our most vulnerable.”

In a capstone project called Food Not Lawns, Rubenstein School undergraduate student Molly Meehan of Yardley, Pa., is helping the group distribute pepper and tomato starts, and plant greens, herbs and yes – the sprouting potatoes in Bliss’s basement – to help community members feed their households and donate produce back to help feed the homeless. Bliss will supervise the project.

Meg Egler, who studies ecological economics in UVM’s Leadership for the Ecozoic PhD partnership with McGill University, praised Bliss’s efforts.

“He is probably the academic that I am most impressed by right now, going out into the community during a crisis and really putting into action what he studies and clearly values,” the native of Edmonton, Canada says. “Instead of losing sleep over how COVID is impacting his academic life, he’s losing sleep over how best to get piles of food donations amassing in his kitchen out to the people that need them.”

Bliss has noticed free meal distribution evolving during the pandemic in several ways that will impact his dissertation.

“Maybe post-COVID, I’ll have the headspace for that,” Bliss laughs. “When things calm down, I’ll fleshing out everything I’ve learned. But right now, it’s about people helping people in hard times.”

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