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Community responds to food insecurity in Addison County

PETE ANTOS-KETCHAM PAUSES at one site for the Little Free Pantry program by the New Community Project that has stocked shelves with emergency foods. These sites are accessible for all at all times, aimed at respecting the privacy of people in need.
Independent photo/Shayiq Shah

STARKSBORO/VERGENNES — Recovering from the pandemic, a receding economy, and inflation collectively continue to test the economic stability of Addison County residents.

A study conducted by the food systems researchers at the University of Vermont earlier this year revealed that food insecurity in the Green Mountain State is 22.9% higher in 2022 than it was in 2019.

More and more area households are being pushed into a struggle for survival. Fortunately, the number of people willing to help is increasing with the number of people needing help.

Starksboro’s Pete Antos-Ketcham, the only full-time worker in New England of the New Community Project, is one of many who have answered the call of helping Addison County residents in need.

The New Community Project is a non-profit organization with a mission of achieving “world peace through social justice and ecological healing,” according to Antos-Ketcham. The project is spread across nine counties and is aimed at providing food insecure populations with a “nutritionally diverse array of foods.”

Based at the First Baptist Church in Starksboro, the project has open hours for its food shelf every Friday and Sunday. They have recently started a new program called “Little free pantry,” where they have emergency foods available in shelves outside the church for anyone to access at any time.

By doing so, they hope to combat the apprehension people might face due to the stigma around being supported by a food shelf.

Antos-Ketcham, a former member of the Green Mountain Club for 23 years, started working with the New Community Project in 2015 and claims the project is a “small organization with a big goal to change the world.”

The project specializes in food distribution and relies on its partners for food sourcing. The most significant partner being Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE), established back in 1965.

Anna Freund, the HOPE’s Food Programs director, said the organization’s primary aim is to “support the local food system and economy.”

GLEANING VEGGIES

Part of HOPE’s strategy to resolve food insecurity is gleaning excess farm produce.

Gleaning has given HOPE a consistent source of food to pass on to local distributors like the New Community Project.

VOLUNTEERS FROM HELPING Overcome Poverty’s Effects glean leftover vegetables at Foote Print Farm in Starksboro last month. Organizers said farmers are incredibly generous in letting volunteers gather the food.
Independent photo/Shayiq Shah

“Gleaning is really wonderful. We ensure that it does no harm to the farm, and we get to use food that would otherwise have been wasted,” Freund said while gleaning at Foote Print Farm in Starksboro.

The owners of the farm, Jake and Taylor Mendell, agreed that food waste is a big issue.

“HOPE reached out to us three years ago and we thought it was a great idea for us to send our excess to them. Our tough time schedule prevented us from managing it,” said Jake.

“Farmers are incredibly generous. It is a special privilege to come onto their farm and harvest their produce,” said Freund, a former farmer herself.

Her personal relationships with several farmers have made the establishment of connections between the farms and HOPE seamless.

The food sourced from the farms, gleaned by HOPE, and then distributed by partners like the New Community Project combine to present a community effort against food insecurity in Addison.

Freund credited Vermont’s sense of community for such an effort.

“There is a lot of great innovation and good will here in our state and in the Addison County as well,” she said.

As much as this is a community effort, recovering from the pandemic and surging inflation hasn’t made it easy. Freund explained that during the pandemic, federal programs like school meals and other grants were enough to meet the increased demand for food.

Not only did it fill the demand, it also made people realize that they were food insecure.

“Asking for help is not an easy thing to do,” Freund and Antos-Ketcham agreed. The adversity of the pandemic made people admit that they needed help, so the demand for food distribution increased.

But now, most federal pandemic-related programs have ceased, which some advocates fear will leave a gap between demand and supply.

VERGENNES FOOD SHELF

THE VERGENNES COMMUNITY Food Shelf sources its food from the Vermont Food Bank and other donations of food and money. Storage space is something they look to expand said Jeanne Peters, left, Mike O’Daniel and Paul Vachon.
Independent photo/Shayiq Shah

Amenities like the Vergennes Community Food Shelf are attempting to fill that gap. Started around 30 years ago as a “hole in the wall,” the food shelf from June 2021 to June 2022 served 1,330 households, as claimed by Paul Vachon, coordinator of the service.

The food shelf partners with the Vermont Food Bank and programs such as Fresh Rescue, which serve as the source of their collected food.

“It really is a community effort. We receive a lot of donations in the form of food and money. Different denominations of churches in the area also provide us with most of our volunteers,” said Mike O’Daniel, the treasurer of the food shelf.

The Vergennes Food Shelf has identified “staple” foods that seem to be the most popular with the population they serve. Often there are gaps between the food that’s donated and what the people might need, so they “supplement.”

Jeanne Peters explained, “We buy other foods that the people are most interested in getting, from the monetary donations we receive. Since the start of this year, we have bought $40,000 worth of food to supplement our donations.”

Programs such as Vermonters feed Vermonters have also donated $4,000 to the Vergennes food shelf to buy locally produced food to be distributed to those in need.

“We accept all donations; scale does not matter,” said O’Daniel.

The Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the U.S. Postal Service and the Lion’s Club all continue to hold food drives for the food shelf to supplement the ton of food it receives from the Vermont Food Bank each month.

The Vergennes organizations have a grander vision of expansion and serving an even bigger and wider population.

“We have recently filed an application for a $20,000 ‘capacity grant’ to the Vermont Food bank for a feasibility study to be completed by a consultant assessing our options to expand,” Vachon said.

Storage space is the biggest priority for the food shelf.

“We are bulging when we get the food delivered,” said Peters. Moving to a larger building would resolve this issue.

Refrigeration is another area of concern. More refrigeration units would expand the food shelf’s ability to keep fresh fruits and vegetables for people to come and collect.

The food shelf also serves a wide variety of immigrant population and want to add ethnically suitable foods to their services to fill the needs of the immigrant population.

Even though help isn’t scarce these days, O’Daniel fears that “if the rate of inflations keeps increasing, we will continue to see more and more people being food insecure.”

Vachon, O’Daniel, Peters, Freund, Antos-Ketcham and Mendell are but a few pearls in this communal string that is supporting the food insecure population of Addison County and Vermont. The tension on this string continues to increase and their services continue to be stretched and tested.

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