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Vermont Food Shelves Trying To Cope With Increased Demand

Some sparse shelves are visible at the Montpelier Food Pantry on Tuesday. They saw a spike in demand over the summer months, according to executive director Jaime Bedard.
Bob Kinzel
Some sparse shelves are visible at the Montpelier Food Pantry on Tuesday. They saw a spike in demand over the summer months, according to executive director Jaime Bedard.

Officials at organizations providing food assistance to Vermonters say a sluggish state economy might be one of the reasons why demand at many local food shelves has risen in the past few months.

The Montpelier Food Pantry occupies several large rooms in the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church on Main Street, and Tuesday morning was a busy one at the facility.

In the course of 90 minutes, several dozen families filled their grocery bags with a variety of canned food, fresh produce and meat products.

Workers then restocked shelves and refrigerated lots of fresh produce for the next day.

Jaime Bedard, the executive director of the Montpelier Food Pantry, says demand has gone through the roof since last spring — usually it does increase in the summer months, but nothing like this.

"Up until maybe four, five months ago, it was pretty steady around 200 [people] a month," said Bedard. "And then over the summer, we jumped to an average of closer to 600 a month. So that's a triple. That's been harder to accommodate for sure."

Bedard says the additional demand has put a huge dent in the Food Pantry's supply of nonperishable food, but she says there's an abundance of fresh produce being supplied by community gardeners.

"The produce right now mostly is coming in from Community Harvest [of Central Vermont] which is a little nonprofit that does gleaning from the farmers market and from various farms and even gardens, and a lot of folks come in with extra from their own gardens," said Bedard.  

Bedard estimates that roughly 75 percent of the people coming to the Montpelier Food Pantry have jobs, but she says in many cases they're dealing with an unexpected financial crisis.

"And that's one of the things that we've been trying to really publicize is that, you know, we're open to you coming in if this is just temporary downturn for your family,” said Bedard. “That's why we're not officially taking income levels right now." 

John Sayles, the CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, says the increase in demand that's taking place in Montpelier is happening across the state.

"We're seeing an increase of utilization, I think, statewide," said Sayles. "I've heard from our outreach person to food shelves that everyone is seeing more demand." 

It's estimated that 25 percent of all Vermonters will get some food assistance this year from one of the Foodbank's local partners.

Sayles says his organization is also trying to cope with a shortage of nonperishable food products.

"We just can't keep in things like peanut butter and tuna fish and pasta and beans and canned spaghetti so we're going out and buying that, as are our network partners," said Sayles.   

Sayles says demand is growing, in part, because wage growth in Vermont has not kept pace with the cost of living. He notes though that roughly 40 percent of all Vermonters who use local food shelves make too much money to qualify for the federal food stamp program.

"The gap ... that families are facing between all their monthly expenses and their income is increasing," said Sayles. "So where are the trade-offs being made, and what feels like it's available there? Is it fuel aid, fuel assistance? It is housing aid? Or is it that the food pantry ... now seems like a more viable option?"

When Sayles became CEO of the Vermont Foodbank back in 2009, the organization was distributing approximately 6 million pounds of food to local groups.

Last year that number doubled to 12 million pounds as the Foodbank's network of local food shelves grew to over 120 local organizations across the state.

Copyright 2017 Vermont Public Radio

Bob is a veteran Vermont journalist, specializing in political reporting. He is based in VPR’s Capital Bureau located across the street from Vermont’s Statehouse. Prior to joining VPR full time in 2002, Bob ran the Vermont News Service for 21 years. The service provided daily local news for eleven stations, including VPR. Bob started the News Service following a stint as news director for WNCS.
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