Photo of Velma sitting in a wing-back chair next to a window.

“I’ve been having fun doing soups for the people next door who are sick,” says Velma. “So take ‘em over a soup, and they can have toast with it or they can have crackers with it.”

The cooking Velma does for folks in and around Derby isn’t the only way she’s helping friends and neighbors. Velma has also taken it upon herself to create and share recipes that align with the foods available through a federal food box program for older adults (called Commodity Supplemental Food Program) and the Foodbank’s free produce distributions, made possible through your support. It’s part of her goal, Velma says, to help people understand the benefits of cooking with what’s on hand and using every bit of those ingredients.

“Utilizing, it’s teaching people what you can do with what’s there,” Velma says. “Because I’ve found that [the free produce distributions] are very good…Commodities is a bit repetitious, but there’s always somebody who can use it, if you want to look.”

Velma’s connections to the people in the NEK go way back. She was born in Holland, Vermont, and over the course of her life worked at numerous jobs in the area, from managing a local propane dealership to directing the Head Start program in Orleans, Essex, and Caledonia counties. In each position, she prioritized helping her community, whether bringing veggies along when picking up gas payments from a gentleman who couldn’t leave his house or helping parents and daycare centers improve menus for kids.

No stranger to food insecurity herself, Velma says her own experiences play a role in her commitment to helping people who are struggling to make ends meet and who may be reluctant to seek help with feeding themselves or their families.

“When my last son was born in December of 1965, in January I walked from the other end of Newport down here to the Overseer of the Poor to get food for my kids. I had three kids, two in diapers, and I remember it was a cold, cold day…. I went in there, it was the most humiliating time of my life. I had to fill out papers and answer stupid questions that never should have related to me feeding my children,” Velma says, referencing what was once a state-mandated town welfare
officer. “I feel for these people that are coming in now…you see them kind of looking down, and they’re ashamed. And there’s no reason in hell that people should be ashamed when they’ve got families to feed.”

And so she cooks for people, shares recipes, and teaches folks how to tweak and mix things up when needed.

“Find something that looks good, like roasted cauliflower, that’s boring,” she says. “But you take the cauliflower and you cut it off in steaks. Add some red pepper on it, throw it with a little butter and olive oil, a little garlic, chopped, yummy.”

The ideas around food and ways to help others utilize it flow freely from Velma. She’s got plans for crockpot recipes for the winter produce distributions, recommendations for stretching cornmeal beyond muffins, and a running list of people in the NEK she’s got meals planned for. She’s driven by love for her community and a belief that teaching people to cook from scratch, use it all, and change things up when necessary, is how to keep nourishing food on neighbors’ tables.

“I’m trying to make it easier for people to realize what they’ve got out there,” Velma says. “I don’t like pats on the back…but I like cheering people up and making a soup for somebody.”