Editor’s note: This story by Liz Sauchelli was first published in the Valley News on June 27.
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The Upper Valley Haven has stopped preparing hot food at its food shelf as part of its food distribution program after the Hartford Zoning Board of Adjustment ruled that the nonprofit organization does not have permission to do so under its current operating permit.
The ruling, which was made at the ZBA’s June 8 meeting, affects the Haven’s ability to run its grab-n-go meal program, which was established during the pandemic.
While that typically involves distributing food that’s already been prepared, such as sandwiches and salads, volunteers would occasionally do some cooking on site, Executive Director Michael Redmond said. Volunteers also have used an oven to heat up a tray of lasagna or stove to warm up a pot of soup that was made elsewhere.
The service was especially important for people who do not have cooking facilities at home, Redmond said, comparing the warm grab-n-go meals to prepared foods commonly sold at a grocery store. The grab-n-go meals are distributed only when the food pantry is open.
But some members of the ZBA argued that the definition that the Haven presented at the June meeting — “The collection, storage, preparation for distribution and distribution of food and other items that are typically carried in a grocery store” — should not apply to cooking or warming up prepared food.
ZBA Chairman Steve Lagasse opposed the Haven providing grab-n-go meals at the food pantry, according to minutes from the meeting. He argued the Haven should relocate the grab-n-go distribution to the nearby Listen location that hosts community meals.
Lagasse did not return an email seeking comment.
When reached by phone, ZBA member Alice Maleski, who did not attend the June 8 meeting, said members were instructed not to comment publicly on ongoing matters.
“Of course, the Zoning Board and Planning Commission have certain standards by the way they make their decisions. Is there an adverse impact on the community?” Redmond said at the meeting.
He acknowledged that some projects can affect fire, police, traffic and other services that could burden the community.
“We can’t imagine that this food distribution program or cooking adds any burden,” Redmond said.
The decision comes as the Haven is petitioning the town for permission to build a 20-bed low-barrier shelter, which does not require any kind of criminal background check, program participation or sobriety for people who use it. The nonprofit is facing greater public scrutiny about their operations, specifically from neighbors who are concerned about noise and a potential increase in crime, among other concerns.
As part of that process, the town asked the Haven to review its current operations to make sure activities fell within their current zoning approvals, which have been in place for more than a decade, said Lori Hirshfield, Hartford’s director of planning and development.
“Some of these were brought to our attention by the public,” Hirshfield said.
Lannie Collins, a member of the Selectboard who serves as the liaison to the ZBA, said that he sees a difference between distributing food the Haven has cooked onsite and repackaging donated food before distributing it.
“I really do appreciate the Haven’s outreach and I do understand the food insecurity there is in the Upper Valley, but I do believe there are many items that people can take that the Haven does not need to make for them,” Collins said. “There are meals available at the Listen Center for that purpose.”
There is no issue with the Haven taking food that has been donated to them and repackaging it, Hirshfield said. For example, the ZBA said it is OK for volunteers to use donated lunchmeat and bread to prepare sandwiches.
“What was not clear when they submitted their application was that they were on occasion preparing food on-site, then to distribute onsite or distribute off-site,” Hirshfield said. “It only sounded like they were receiving foods and re-packaging them to go off-site and they weren’t actually cooking them on-site.”
The Haven will go before the Planning Commission July 11 and the ZBA on July 25 to address the food preparation and distribution definition. Until they receive explicit approval to do so, all cooking operations will be suspended at the food pantry and food distribution programs.
“It’s their responsibility to have a clear definition and I think the board came back and said this is not a clear definition, it’s not that we’re opposed to it 100%,” Hirshfield said. “They left the door open for them.”
Collins said that if the Haven wants a variance, they should go through the process of applying for one.
“The problem I have is, while I very much appreciate what the Haven does and I sympathize with the needs for the homeless in the community, I don’t believe it’s fair to place different policy exceptions on the Haven than other businesses in the community. And the Haven I think is subject to the same requirements of every other business,” he said. “I’d prefer them to just repackage it and hand it out as opposed to reheating it. If they want to have a microwave available at the Haven for people to heat up their food that in my opinion would be fine. That is not serving them a hot meal.”
The week after the ZBA’s June 8 decision, volunteers stopped using the stove and oven to warm up prepared meals, Redmond said.
“We are interpreting it that we can microwave something,” Redmond said. “It’s minimal impact, but I don’t like the idea of limiting that without an understanding of the burden that it’s placing on the community.”
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