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Food shelf use rises as crop yields decrease

MIDDLEBURY — The Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) food shelf in Middlebury is seeing a substantial uptick in demand from Addison County residents who are having a hard time making ends meet.
That, in itself, is of major concern to HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross. But the problem is compounded by the fact that this demand is occurring before the toughest winter months, and Montross knows there are many other hungry people in more distant reaches of the county who simply can’t get to the HOPE food shelf.
“What we’re seeing is the numbers of people using the food shelf are up, and we are seeing a lot of new customers coming in on a regular basis,” Montross said on Thursday.
John Fallon, a HOPE food shelf volunteer for the past four years, agreed with Montross’s assessment.
“Three weeks ago, we had four new elderly people come through the food shelf we had never seen before,” Fallon recounted. “One of them, a 90-year-old man, was about in tears that his life had gotten to this point.”
Here’s what Montross and her poverty-fighting colleagues are seeing at the Community Services Building on Boardman Street:
•  Food Shelf use is up an average of 13 percent over the same time last year. Statistics provided by HOPE specifically show that a combined total of 725 individuals representing 308 county households availed themselves of HOPE food shelf supplies between January and August of this year. By comparison, the food shelf served 655 individuals from 279 households during the same period last year, and 549 individuals from 249 households during that timeline in 2015.
Around 30 percent of this year’s clients have been children, according to Montross. People can typically use the food shelf once a month, and receive enough food for 3 meals for 3 days for each member of their household.
•  HOPE’s food surplus and farm produce section drew more than 7,500 visits through August of this year, according to Montross. That compares to 7,332 visits during the same timeframe last year and 4,895 visits through the same period in 2015.
People are allowed to take food from the food surplus/farm produce area every day the HOPE offices are open.
HOPE has, for almost a decade, made strides in supplementing its food stores with surplus produce harvested from area farms. This gleaning program generated 40,519 pounds of donated foods from farms during 2016, which was a stellar year for growers. The top five gleaned crops last year were carrots (10,435 pounds), winter squash (3,264 pounds), zucchini (5,362 pounds) and potatoes (2,202 pounds). This food might otherwise have remained unused and instead helped supplement the diets of hundreds of low-income Addison County residents.
HOPE has a display cooler and a freezer to help extend the life of the veggies. The organization also collaborates with the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, whose culinary students help process vegetables into nourishing soups.
In all, 164 volunteers contributed a combined total of 379 hours to HOPE’s gleaning program, under the direction of Lily Bradburn, local food access coordinator.
Unfortunately, this year’s harvest is not looking as good as last year’s, according to HOPE officials, who pointed to weather factors that have choked some vegetable crops.
Donated farm produce is down roughly 41 percent this year, according to HOPE statistics.
As of last week, HOPE this year had:
•  Gleaned 12,431 pounds of food.
•  Processed 403 pounds of food for its freezer.
•  Made 290 quarts of soup using gleaned veggies.
•  Attracted 60 volunteers to do gleaning-related work.
Montross said the peak gleaning period will likely end in mid-October, so HOPE officials are hoping for more veggie donations before the first heavy frosts begin to set in. The organization will also accept produce donations from people whose gardens yield more than they can use. She stressed those making produce donations should only give veggies that they would eat themselves.
Rather than hunker down and stretch food reserves as far as they will go, HOPE is looking at ways to expand accessibility to the food shelf.
“There are more people eligible for our services than we are currently serving,” Montross said.
To wit: More than 14 percent of the populations of both Granville and Goshen are deemed to be living below federal poverty guidelines, but HOPE is currently serving fewer than 2 percent of the residents of those two towns, according to Montross.
In Ripton, 12.7 percent of the population qualifies for HOPE services, yet the agency is only serving 2.72 percent of that’s town population, Montross said. In Bridport, 9.3 percent of the residents qualify for HOPE assistance, but only 3.61 percent are availing themselves of it.
“Part of our strategic plan is to serve more people in need,” Montross said.
That will likely require HOPE to export its food shelf amenities to people who currently can’t get to Middlebury. That might entail setting up small satellite offices in a few other communities, according to Montross.
HOPE a few years ago tried to reach more households by sending food along with Meals on Wheels delivery volunteers. But the program “wasn’t getting the right food to the right people,” Montross lamented. Meals on Wheels primarily serves the elderly, some of whom are unable to take raw ingredients and turn them into a meal.
But HOPE officials are counting on continued community support to make sure no one goes hungry this year. As usual, Middlebury-area schools will conduct food drives to benefit the food shelf. Anyone interested in donating or volunteering to the food shelf should call HOPE at 388-3608.
“The community support is growing and there has been more awareness,” Montross said. “And our local farms have been incredibly generous.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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