More Vermont families seeking food assistance

ENOSBURG FALLS, Vt. (AP) — When the Enosburg Food Shelf opened three years ago in this farm country town, organizers expected to serve 60 families a month, at most. Now, an average of 160 take advantage of it.

Food shelf treasurer Suzanne Hull-Parent says the resources of lower middle-class familes are drying up as the economy continues to wobble.

A new federal report on hunger issued Nov. 15 found that Vermont and Alabama have had the highest increase in “food insecurity” during the last 10 years.

Between 2008 and 2009, the share of households in Vermont that at times don’t have enough nutritious food rose from 12.1 percent to 13.6 percent. In Alabama, the rate rose from 13.8 percent to 15 percent in the same period. Tthe Department of Agriculture, which also takes into account population size and other factors, says the states are tied in having had the biggest increase in the last decade.

“The choices that families have to make when it comes to meeting their basic needs are heartbreaking. Choosing between heat and food or housing and food are decisions that people just shouldn’t have to make,” said Marissa Parisi, executive director of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

A monthly box of food — juice, bread, meat, cereal, cans of fruit — from the food shelf helps Kyle Thompson, 25, his girlfriend and their 2-year-old son. All three live with Thompson’s mother in Franklin.

“It really takes out spending for food so we can afford other things like electricity, saving to move out or getting the car fixed,” said Thompson, who works at a Champlain Farms convenience store in Swanton and has been denied food stamps.

“You just got to cut where you gotta cut,” he said.

In the last three years, the Vermont FoodBank — a statewide anti-hunger organization — has seen a 40 percent increase in the number of people seeking help from its network of food shelves, meal sites, homeless shelters and senior centers around the state.

And donations are not keeping up with the increased need.

Last year, the Vermont Foodbank distributed 7.6 million pounds of food to as many as 86,000 Vermonters in need, said Executive Director John Sayles. The amount of food has risen every year for the last decade, he said.

The food shelf in Enosburg, like others, has been pressed as the economy has soured.

Plagued by a drop in donations, it wasn’t going to give out turkeys this year for Thanksgiving. Then a local business association pulled through, raising more than $3,000, including its own $750 donation.

Not only did the food shelf hand out turkeys and Thanksgiving baskets, it was able to surpass its cutoff of 150 households, reaching all 170 families in need.

“If it wasn’t for the food shelf, we wouldn’t have been able to have a Thanksgiving this year,” said Carlene Adams, 40, who was laid off from her convenience store job in October.

The food shelf is seeing more working poor and extended families, who aren’t eligible for food stamps, said Kathy Gaston, one of its founders.

Since May, the number of households coming into the food shelf has grown from 124, or 293 individuals, to 165 households or 394 people by October, Gaston said.

To meet the need, organizers hold monthly fundraising meetings, and volunteers from the community and the high school show up to distribute food, cook for fundraising dinners or collect donations during a Labor Day coin drop.

Megan Paradis, 23, who works as a cashier, was grateful to get a turkey a week before Thanksgiving because she didn’t have any more food stamps to buy one for herself, her 3-year-old and boyfriend. She also brought in a friend, who got on the waiting list for a turkey, and signed up for the monthly food supply.

Paradis said the food she gets from the food shelf ensures that she doesn’t run out.

“This kind of makes the last ending of the month, where it works,” she said.

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