Home News and Features Post-Flood Montpelier Table Set With Good Intentions, Concerns About Racism Had a...

Post-Flood Montpelier Table Set With Good Intentions, Concerns About Racism Had a Seat Too

Lalitha Mailwaganam (right) and her daughter Girija Griffin (center), along with volunteer Siobhan Padget, serve food at the free food tent Mailwaganam ran downtown for a week in the aftermath of the July 11 flood. Photo by John Lazenby.
After the July 10–11 flood that devastated downtown Montpelier, residents, volunteers, and paid workers — some from as far away as Florida, Virginia and Texas — faced a mammoth recovery job. The grueling labor of mucking out basements and hauling smelly debris got people hungry. 

As early as July 12, a slew of volunteer cooks, servers, and restaurants began showing up to feed them at no charge. But concerns about the effect of these efforts on the few local restaurants still open — and apparent miscommunication — resulted in a situation of perceived racism that upset many. 

Lalitha Mailwaganam was among those who stepped up. The Montpelierite and pop-up restaurateur solicited donations, then cooked and served free meals July 17 to 22 in a tent she set up by the downtown volunteer hub. “In our culture, in time of crisis, food is very important,” said Mailwaganam, who is of Indian descent, referring to Hindu temples that offer free food to anyone in need.

In addition to Mailwaganam and other individuals, there was World Central Kitchen, which passed out salads and slices alongside National Life offerings. Al’s French Frys served meals in front of City Hall. Skinny Pancake went with pay-what-you-can, as did North Branch Cafe. Monks came from Northfield’s Trijang Buddhist Institute. These efforts not only fueled the cleanup, but also helped feed people who depend on weekday meals normally offered by now-flooded Montpelier churches.

“All of the food vendors arrived out of the kindness of their own hearts, with very light or mostly no coordination with the volunteer hub,” wrote Montpelier Parks and Trees director Alec Ellsworth in an email to The Bridge. He co-runs the hub, a makeshift central location connecting volunteers with flood victims and distributing items like food, cleaning supplies, and shovels.

For at least two weeks, Ellsworth said, these people fed 500 to 1,000 people a day for free, with nobody turned away.

However, Mailwaganam reported that she and fellow volunteers were repeatedly asked not to serve paid workers, many of whom were Latine. Further, she reported having trouble finding help or clarity from city officials, raising the question of what conflict-resolution structures are available to Montpelierites of color in situations where race may play a role. 

Who Gets to Eat?

Early that week — with Latine employees of cleanup companies among those in line for free meals — flood recovery volunteer Cameron O’Connor entered the meal tent, according to Mailwaganam.

O’Connor directed food servers to feed only volunteers and tell the workers to eat at open businesses, Mailwaganam said.

“[She said] something like, ‘You are encouraged not to eat here,’ [and] ‘If you want to eat here you have to donate some money,’” Mailwaganam said of O’Connor.

Martina Anderson, another volunteer, recalled O’Connor asking a translator to tell Spanish-speaking workers in line, “This food is not for you,” something O’Connor vehemently denied when asked about it.

Anderson said she stepped in and asked the translator not to deliver the message and that the food was for everyone.

“How can this not feel racist?” she asked. “‘This food is not for you’ in Spanish?”

“When I first heard that there was going to be some effort to ask people whether they were workers versus volunteers, I was alarmed and thought that it would have a racist effect,” said former secretary of state (and Montpelier resident) Deb Markowitz.

In other words, even where no racism was intended, the impact of excluding paid workers would have been harmful along largely racial lines. The University of Vermont’s Anti-Racism Instructor Guide summarizes the principle like this: “Intention is not the focus. Impact is.” 

In this case, so many of the paid contractors in town were non-white that distinguishing paid from unpaid would automatically exclude a lot of non-white workers, many of whom may be marginalized due not only to their race but also to their economic and immigration statuses. In addition, for many people of color, the dynamic of a white person entering a situation led by people of color and attempting to exert control over some aspect of the proceedings is a familiar and unwelcome one. 

According to Mailwaganam, O’Connor returned at least twice more that week and asked volunteers not to serve paid workers. Mailwaganam viewed it as harassment. She asked O’Connor to stop and also asked others to intervene.

“Having her tell me as a person of color not to feed other people of color really traumatized me,” Mailwaganam said.

“That Plan Was Scrapped”

A VTDigger article published July 21 reported a Latine worker saying some people had told him and others the meals were only for locals. The article did not include specifics, but it sparked outraged commentary on Front Porch Forum.

In response, on July 27, City Manager Bill Fraser wrote on Front Porch Forum, in part, “I have made a point of thanking every worker and group of workers I see… The initial thought on the first day of service was to provide free food to community volunteers while asking paid workers to buy food in order to support local businesses. After a very short time it became apparent that making this distinction was almost impossible and that this distinction could very well lead to unintended discrimination. That plan was scrapped and everyone was fed from then on. It is possible that a paid worker was turned away in those first minutes and interpreted it as a racial or cultural slight which is, of course, terrible.”

Asked whose thought this was, who may have verbalized it to volunteers, and when it was scrapped, Fraser stated, “My information is second hand and I believe you have spoken with the people on scene. I understand that it was Lalitha who called out the situation and it was quickly changed.”

Mailwaganam was uncertain if O’Connor’s message was policy. Following a conversation with O’Connor, Ellsworth told people in the tent a translator would be urging contractors to make a donation or else eat at local businesses, according to Mailwaganam. 

Asked via email if city reps communicated with paid workers to discourage them from eating free food or ask them to donate money for meals, Ellsworth said, “No, this never happened.” Similarly, Montpelier Alive executive director Katie Trautz told The Bridge that, while the organization had heard from restaurants concerned about a drop-off in business, it did not discourage paid workers from eating free food. 

Mailwaganam said, “they scratched that [plan] because they had the sign” — referring to signs the city began posting encouraging people to eat at restaurants.

But at the time, unsure if O’Connor held authority or knew something she didn’t know, Mailwaganam said she felt stressed about it every day.

The Bridge reached out to O’Connor for an interview and emailed her questions, but she declined to reply in kind. In a statement via voicemail, she said she was fond of Mailwaganam, thought she had done a wonderful job, and wanted to support her.

She denied saying people could not eat the food at the tent. Instead, she said, she was encouraging people to go to restaurants per “a directive from Montpelier Alive.” 

“I personally had been serving Hispanic people, everybody all week, all parts of town, not at the food tent. So I wasn’t differentiating,” O’Connor said. “The idea was to encourage some of the workers, who apparently, I thought, were getting stipends from their companies for lunch.”

“I’m really sorry that Lalitha is upset,” she added. 

Open Restaurants — Empty Tables

After Al’s French Frys arrived, an effort that lasted a week, some restaurants approached the city, perceiving free meals as taking away from their business, according to Ellsworth.

“They were upset because they were seeing both volunteers and paid contractors flooding into town to assist with the cleanup, but nobody was coming through their doors,” he wrote.

Skinny Pancake owner Benjy Adler said that, while he has no complaints, food giveaways did hurt the restaurant.

“We were bleeding for about two weeks,” he said. “As soon as the free food … went away, our sales improved substantially. It’s worth noting that Main Street also opened up right around that time, so hard to say if it’s correlation or causation.”

“Al’s had the best of intentions … but it was awkward,” he added. “I think there was some advocacy to please consider that the restaurants are open and trying to do business.”

The city responded to the restaurants’ concerns by putting up signs listing open restaurants that read “Please Support Our Local Businesses,” according to Ellsworth. They also suggested people buy and give restaurant gift certificates.

“The point of those efforts was to raise awareness about local businesses, and encourage those who had the means to support those places,” Ellsworth wrote.

Plans for a Remedy?

Phayvanh Luekhamhan, executive director of the Center for Arts and Learning, a former executive director of Montpelier Alive and a friend of Mailwaganam’s, called Fraser’s statement problematic. 

“He was speaking from his own experience,” she said. “There was no apology for harm, no reconciliation, no plan for a remedy.”

Mailwaganam said that soon after she wrapped up her food service, O’Connor stopped by her house and apologized for “stepping on my toes.”

Early on, Mailwaganam said, she had contacted Mayor Jack McCullough to report the situation and seek clarity about the city’s free-food policy, but she said he never got back to her. After also contacting more volunteers and friends, as well as Markowitz and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, she didn’t know where else to turn. 

“If [McCullough] had asked anyone in authority to pass the message to me [that volunteers could feed everybody], we wouldn’t have gotten into this mess,” Mailwaganam said. “I cannot blame Alec or Katie. It was a huge miscommunication.” 

In an email response to The Bridge’s request for comment, McCullough wrote, “The city’s consistent position is that nobody should have been denied the food that Lalitha and others so generously donated to the volunteers.”

After hearing from Mailwaganam, he wrote, “I immediately raised it with either Bill Fraser or [Assistant City Manager] Kelly Murphy, and I understood that the city was going to make it clear that everyone who came to the tent would be fed.” He said he followed up with Fraser, Trautz, and Murphy. Then, he said, after hearing from Zuckerman, he reached out to Fraser again to confirm the city’s position before the July 26 City Council meeting.

“I saw that Lalitha was online for part of that meeting, and I was hoping she would raise the question so we could clarify it publicly, but she either didn’t bring it up or left the meeting before she had a chance to raise it,” he wrote.

“I can’t confirm if I had another conversation with [Mailwaganam], but if I didn’t, I apologize for that,” he wrote.

It might have helped, Luekhamhan suggested, if Montpelier residents of color had a dedicated person or group to turn to for such problems. (The Bridge was unable to talk with Montpelier’s Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee members or with Carol Plante of the Montpelier Community Justice Center’s Conflict Assistance Program by press time.)

“This is an example of things that happen when we don’t have a structure in place” to address incidents like this one, Luekhamhan said. “When something like this happens, then what do we do? Lalitha definitely tried to figure it out on her own.”