Willing Hands’ new headquarters is on Church Street in Norwich. However, its impact reaches far and wide as it picks up nutritious food otherwise thrown away, and donates it to organizations and people in need across the Upper Valley.
Willing Hand’s history starts in 2004 with founder Peter Phippen. Phippen worked in the produce department of the Hanover Co-op and noticed that there was an inordinate amount of nutritious food going to waste. He resigned from his job and founded Willing Hands in order to be able to redistribute quality food into the community which would have otherwise gone into the landfill.
Phippen started out with a donated mini-van to collect food and deliver it to local organizations. The aging mini-van was without a garage, and so major temperature changes when storing produce before delivery was challenging. Despite many hurdles, in its first year, Willing Hands delivered over one hundred tons of food to over thirty organizations and gained its non-profit status.
Today, Willing Hands serves over sixty organizations every week in the Upper Valley, delivering food in box trucks. “We made a decision early on in our history to focus our time and attention – and our donors – on perishable and healthy food,” said Gabe Zoerheide, Executive Director of Willing Hands. “In 2019, Willing Hands delivered approximately 266 tons of food to our neighbors in need and 93% of this was fruit and vegetables.” The other food collected by Willing Hands includes eggs, milk, frozen meat, and locally-made, home-made bread.
As another part of its mission, Willing Hands has several programs to create more accessibility to healthy food. There is a nutrition education program to teach people how to cook healthy meals on a limited budget with limited kitchen items. This program is volunteer-run by board member, Birgit Humpert, a registered dietician. People can also donate food from their own gardens, and even wild game they’ve hunted to help supplement the foods which Willing Hands receives in donations.
Another important part of Willing Hands is the garden sites run by Gleaning and Gardening Coordinator Jim McCracken. The gardens, which are at Cedar Circle Farm and Willing Hands home base, are entirely tended by volunteers who come to plant, weed, and harvest crops for donation. With the recent threat of Covid, McCracken spoke of the importance of the gardens for community building. “I think they really enjoy being out and having a purpose to what their work is, and being able to help and be safe at the same time.”
Gleaning, which is the act of harvesting leftover crops from a farmers field, is a high-yield, volunteer-run activity to collect more produce for donation. The volunteers will go to local farms and orchards to collect spare fruits and vegetables which were not collected by the farmers themselves. Places such as Crossroads Farm, Honeyfields Farm, Edgewater Farm, and Cedar Circle Farm have generously donated their excess produce to Willing Hands. In 2019, gleaning alone contributed about 60,000 pounds of produce. Right now, there are five weekly-scheduled gleanings.
Carolyn Frye, who is the Gleaning Program Volunteer Lead, said she joined Willing Hands because of the simplistic nature of the organization. “I just thought it sounded like such a perfect mission. At the time it was very straightforward, there was surplus food and there were people in need and Willing Hands was collecting surplus food and giving it to people in need,” said Frye. “I feel like everyone who comes to Willing Hands to volunteer has that same interest and so there’s such a wonderful camaraderie…That’s the wonderful part of that, to see the spirit of others who want to help others in that way.”
Willing Hands has recently moved into a new location at 198 Church Street in Norwich with 10 acres and a 4,160 square foot building. Before the move, the biggest issue for the organization was with space. “We had these crops available and no place to store them so we had to leave them in the field or find another organization to take them right away,” said Frye. Their new location has a warehouse space for more food storage, allowing them to house their food for a longer time.
In response to Covid-19, Willing Hands is facing a huge challenge. With an increased demand for donated food as people face the economic crisis, Willing Hands has responded in kind. “Our organization has really been on the forefront of the community’s response to the pandemic, particularly around food response…The past six weeks have been the busiest I’ve ever had during my career.” said Zoerheide. The organization has had to increase their capacity by up to forty percent. “There has been an outpouring of support from community members monetarily and with volunteer time, which is a heartwarming and positive thing. Logistically, it’s challenging and it’s been very rewarding to play a role in the community’s response.”
Willing Hands has been uniquely able to handle this crisis in a way they weren’t before. “We finally found a perfect location and our programs have been able to grow. At this time of such tremendous need we’ve been able to take so much in. It’s really remarkable that we are really set to respond to this crisis, having moved into the facility just last spring.”
The work that Willing Hands does is an example of how a small idea can create such large-scale impact. Food waste is an enormous problem in the United States, creating vast quantities of methane which is a highly impactful greenhouse gas. Being able to redistribute food that will otherwise be discarded can actually start with a mini-van and turn into a large-scale operation. There are networks of organizations doing their small part to end food insecurity across the country, but creating a network of organizations such as Willing Hands has been able to do, has made a larger dent overall. Outstretching Willing Hands far and wide will do wonders for solving food insecurity across the country and beyond.