HOPE’s gleaned food feeds hungry neighbors
When you have these limited funds you have to piecemeal together, you’re not going to go for vegetables you’d never cooked with. But when you can access that without having to pay for it, it makes a huge difference.
— Lily Bradburn
MIDDLEBURY — The non-profit Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) is again collaborating with area farms to glean fresh produce that will provide a free, healthy boost to meals in the county’s low-income households.
Based at 282 Boardman St. in Middlebury, HOPE helps low-income residents access critical services, including food, clothing, housing and financial assistance to prevent heat/electric shut-offs. The organization also extends job-related assistance — including tools, uniforms, tests and other items needed to get or keep paid employment.
Among the services is a “gleaning program” through which HOPE and its volunteers harvest thousands of pounds of surplus, vitamin-laden crops from local farms for Addison County food shelves, free summer meals sites, teen centers, various state offices that deal with low-income clients and several mobile home parks.
“It always amazes people when we talk about how much we’re getting, or if I have volunteers who are picking up and distributing, they are overwhelmed to see the array of produce we get to bring to folks,” said Lily Bradburn, HOPE’s local food access coordinator and point-person for the gleaning effort.
Bradburn anticipates that around two dozen area farms and orchards will have donated surplus produce, dairy, meat, eggs and other fresh foods by the time the gleaning program wraps late this fall. Bradburn thus far has been working with a handful of farms to harvest surplus berries, lettuce, cucumbers, summer squash and other healthy edibles.
She currently has nine volunteers whom she can summon by email when she needs help picking and/or delivering produce. The need for help usually peaks in late summer and early fall, when many crops are ready for harvest.
HOPE officials said many low-income families would love to eat more fruit and vegetables, but are not often able to do so because it simply costs more to eat healthy.
“I think for the most part, people are so excited to see fresh produce that they’re able to access without having to use their limited funds for it,” Bradburn said.
She added food shelf clients tend to be more adventurous about trying new kinds of vegetables when they’re free. It has been through HOPE that some local residents have gotten they first taste of kale, Swisschard and garlic scapes.
“It’s like a risk assessment,” Bradburn said. “When you have these limited funds you have to piecemeal together, you’re not going to go for vegetables you’d never cooked with. But when you can access that without having to pay for it, it makes a huge difference.”
She and other HOPE representatives have been making appearances at the Middlebury and Vergennes farmers markets to get children enthusiastic about eating healthy foods.
“We had a lot of kids come up, munching on snap peas,” Bradburn said with a smile.
The promotional efforts are now bearing fruit.
“The number of people who are coming (to the food shelf) specifically for fresh produce has risen dramatically from what it used to be,” HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross said. “We hear positive comments from people about what a difference it’s making in their lives.”
Gleaned food is not wasted. HOPE continues to partner with the Hannaford Career Center culinary program to turn vegetables into delicious soups that can be frozen and enjoyed during the cold winter months.
DEMAND STILL HIGH
While fresh produce is starting to pour into HOPE’s food shelf, the agency’s larder is currently lacking in other products, Montross noted. Cereals, snacks, baking ingredients, condiments, soups (other than tomato and chicken noodle, which are in good supply), peanut butter and canned beans are in particular need, she said.
Unfortunately, there’s been no let-up in overall demand for HOPE services after a busy 2018, according to Montross. The organization last year served 3,065 individuals representing a total of 1,345 households. Of those, 63 percent were employed, 42 percent were children, 7 percent were elderly and 18 percent were disabled. Only 7 percent of those recipients had a housing subsidy, while 25 percent were receiving 3SquaresVT food assistance, according to Montross.
Services provided by HOPE last year included 72,567 meals, with 357 of those coming during the holidays. The organization also:
• Saw 11,961 visits to its surplus food area.
• Provided 518 children with gifts through its holiday shop.
• Connected 98 families with housing.
• Helped 114 people get, or keep, jobs.
Montross is pleased with the performance of the gleaning program, but is concerned about a proposal announced last week by the Trump Administration that would change the way states calculate eligibility for federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, once commonly referred to as “food stamps.” The administration, according to a recent report from National Public Radio, wants to close a loophole that allows states to give benefits to those who would not otherwise be eligible by raising or eliminating income and asset limits.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated elimination of the loophole could result in 3 million Americans losing their SNAP benefits.
Montross believes the change would also lead to a decline in the number of free summer meal sites in Addison County. There are 20 such sites in the county providing food to children up to 18 years old. The meals are offered based on a percentage of the overall community population that qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches. Montross believes closing the SNAP loophole will lower that percentage in some Addison County towns and thus jeopardize free summer meals.
“The (proposal) is punishing people who are working,” Montross said.
She urged Vermonters to call their Congressional delegation and email concerns to [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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