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Hunger is surging in the county

MIDDLEBURY — Hunger in Addison County is reaching historic proportions, according to Jeanne Montross, longtime leader of the Middlebury nonprofit known as Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, or HOPE.

And that’s not hyperbole.

During the first quarter of 2024, low-income Addison County residents made 2,947 visits to HOPE’s surplus- and gleaned-food repository on Boardman Street, up 41% from the 2,085 visits during the same period of 2023.

The first three months of this year also saw HOPE provide 24,039 free meals through its food shelf, a 61% surge compared to the 14,976 meals provided during the same period in 2023.

“The second quarter of the year, not yet ended, seems to be showing sustained high volume,” Montross added.

It’s a trend that becomes even more disconcerting when one realizes that 2023 was paradoxically a “banner year” for food shelf use at HOPE.

HOPE provided 92,601 meals through its food shelf in 2023 — up a whopping 71% compared to the 54,531 meals provided in 2022, according to Montross. And those numbers don’t include provisions distributed through HOPE’s surplus food, the fresh produce gleaned from farms, and food the nonprofit delivers to families and individuals who aren’t able to visit the organization’s headquarters. There were 10,671 visits to HOPE’s surplus- and gleaned-food section in 2023, up from 7,153 in 2022.

“We’ve never seen this kind of an increase before,” she said of the latest statistics. “I haven’t been this concerned about having enough food since I’ve been here. It’s never been such a difficult situation.”

Montross took HOPE’s reins back in 2000.

The jump in demand for free food began in 2020, with the COVID pandemic, and has continued unabated, she said. She reiterated her concerns about the adequacy of HOPE’s food reserves.

“Between the increased number of people coming to us for food, the price rise in food at the markets, and the weather challenges to our local (and global) food system, I am very worried about having enough food to meet the needs we are seeing,” Montross said.

HOPE was able to respond to last year’s food needs in part thanks to an incredibly generous, anonymous donor. That donor gave the organization $300,000 to distribute for fuel assistance and another $350,000 for food purchases.

“Thanks to a generous contribution from an anonymous donor, HOPE has been able to meet the expanding needs of the community and in the past two years has been able to provide more food to the families it sees.”

“We used those (2023) food funds very strategically; we were able to source more food ourselves and were also able to give people grocery store cards they could use for basic necessities that we also try to offer at the food shelf,” Montross said.

In all, HOPE distributed 4,000 cards to use at Shaw’s and Hannaford grocery stores that entitled the holder to $25 per month in food purchases. The card holders were vetted to ensure low-income status.

“People were so grateful,” Montross said.

The availability of more aid resulted in more people seeking food assistance from HOPE last year.

LUCY PARKER, ASSISTANT food programs coordinator for Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, bags produce that’s part of the mix of free food at the nonprofit’s Middlebury headquarters. HOPE has seen a historic increase in demand for food in recent months.
Independent photo/John Flowers

“There are more people in need… and they are still coming to us,” Montross said.

She explained HOPE has in recent years fortified and diversified its food programming to try and meet the swelling needs. The organization’s hunger attack plan includes:

• Its long running food shelf, which is periodically replenished with monthly purchase from the Vermont Food Bank, community food drives, financial donations and HOPE’s annual food budget. The current list of food shelf needs includes breakfast cereal, canned tuna, Progresso-style soups, canned spaghetti sauce, baking mix, salad dressing, dried fruit, healthy snacks for kids, condiments, flavored past and rice, cornmeal, black beans, large bottles of fruit juice, canned carrots and canned corn.

• A successful gleaning program that last year yielded approximately 35,000 pounds of produce and fruit. HOPE works with around 20 area farms to secure food — some it through gleaning (donation of surplus produce), and some of it purchased.

“This number is always dependent on weather,” Montross said of the farm food. “The 35,000 pounds available last year would have been significantly higher, but for the late spring frost and the floods that washed away crops. We’re hoping for benign weather this year, for the sake of our constituents as well as for the farmers that work so hard.”

Gleaned food is shared with HOPE clients and with other nonprofits and venues serving people in need. For example, HOPE shares with Middlebury’s Open Door Clinic, which provides free medical services to uninsured and underinsured residents. HOPE is also working with the Open Door Clinic to get food to migrant farm workers.

• A “food shelf on wheels” program through which HOPE delivers sustenance to shut-ins, the frail, the elderly and people who live in areas without public transportation. The agency launched its rural food delivery service during the pandemic and is maintaining nine distinct routes.

“We’re looking at adding one or two other (routes),” Montross said. “We call people once per month, take an order over the phone, pack up the food and make sure it’s not just non-perishables. We also have yogurt, milk, cheeses, butter, breads and fresh produce. We want to give them a nice balanced selection.”

Montross gave a big shout-out to Paul Ralston and Little Village Acres for their help in growing, processing and providing fresh food to HOPE clients. She also praised the Middlebury Rotary Club for its monetary and labor contributions toward food security.

• “Snack bags” for children to help get them through vacations when they don’t have access to free breakfasts and lunches at school. During vacation days/weeks, HOPE delivers nutritious snack bags to area schools for distribution to children who might otherwise go hungry. Those bags — containing items like granola bars, fruits and milk — are assembled with the help of Rotary Club members.

“We are focusing on the younger students,” Montross said. “If kids, when they’re young, don’t have good nutrition, they’re never going to catch up. Malnutrition at a young age has a lifelong impact.”

HOPE snack bags aren’t distributed during the summer, because there are multiple free meals sites for kids operating in the county. The Independent in last week’s edition offered an inventory of those meals sites.

• Food education. HOPE not only dispenses food, but wants to let recipients know how to prepare it in its most tasty and healthful forms. Food shelf officials provide tips, and plans call for a menu helper to be stationed in the HOPE building lobby to let people know how they can maximize benefit from food shelf items, according to Montross.

And speaking of education, Montross wants to put together a cookbook containing client recipes. She believes such a cookbook could be sold as a fundraiser.

“We’re trying to serve the entire spectrum of needs,” Montross said of HOPE’s strategy. “Food is really expensive right now. We’re looking to be focused and reach as many people as we can.”

More information about HOPE can be found at hope-vt.org.

Meanwhile, organizers of the Bristol-based Have-A-Heart Community Food Shelf are also seeing an increase in demand.

BRISTOL FOOD SHELF

Alison Pouliot is a volunteer coordinator and treasurer of Have-A-Heart, which is based in Bristol’s St. Ambrose Catholic Church and distributes food monthly to hungry folks residing in the 5-town area: Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro.

Pouliot said Have-A-Heart saw steady demand for its services during the COVID pandemic, and the need has only gotten greater during the past two years. Have-A-Heart served around 1,100 households made up of 3,150 individuals during calendar year 2023, which represented a 30% jump from 2022, according to Pouliot.

The food shelf has accommodated around 1,400 individuals thus far during 2024, an increase from the 1,293 people who sought sustenance from the nonprofit through the same period last year.

Pouliot offered two main theories for the surge in Have-A-Heart users: The recent sunset of COVID-related food benefits, and better promotion of food assistance in the 5-town area. The Vermont Food Bank has recently sponsored hunger-themed talks in Bristol, a community that also hosts monthly visits from the VeggieVanGo Mobile Food Pantry. Run by the Vermont Foodbank in partnership with Porter Medical Center, VeggieVanGo distributes free, fresh produce and other staples at Mount Abraham Union High School from 10-11a.m. on the third Wednesday of each month. Contact [email protected], or call 800-585-2265.

Also of note: Have-A-Heart has been reaching out with assistance to migrant families in our area. The food shelf has served 14 of such families (totaling 40 individuals) so far this month, according to Pouliot.

For more info about Have-A-Heart, click here.

Donations Sought

The HOPE food shelf needs breakfast cereal, canned tuna, Progresso-style soups, canned spaghetti sauce, baking mix, salad dressing, dried fruit, healthy snacks for kids, condiments, flavored past and rice, cornmeal, black beans, large bottles of fruit juice, canned carrots and canned corn.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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