Demand up at Vt. food shelves; needs met for now

AP News
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Posted: Nov 25, 2009 4:54 PM

Vermont food shelves met the increasing demand for help _ barely _ but they remain concerned about helping those needing Christmas time help in a state ranked among the nation's hungriest.

"We have been experiencing very high demand," said Paul Denton, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Community Action Agency. "A lot of it is folks we haven't seen before ... Can we meet it? It's hard to answer that question."

Just last week, the food shelf in Newport ran out of turkeys for needy families. But days before the holiday, the community rallied with necessary donations.

Individuals provided enough money for the food shelf to buy about 20 more turkeys for distribution to families on its waiting list.

All told, the food shelf gave out 250 Thanksgiving baskets this year but it's unsure if it will be able to do the same at Christmas. It depends on the donations.

Around Vermont, demand is up at food shelves as Vermonters lose jobs, try to make ends meet on unemployment and struggle with heating, food and fuel costs.

Many charities say they have been able to meet the demand with donations and food drives held by businesses, church groups and schools, but wonder if they'll raise enough during the upcoming holiday season.

"People don't have the money (to donate) that they had when the economy was better. As everyone's stretching, we get that trickle-down," said Rob Meehan, executive director of the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington.

A federal government recently ranked Vermont the sixth hungriest state in the country. In the new report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said 12 percent of Vermont households struggled to get enough food on the table in 2008. Officials say the problem is likely to get worse.

In Bellows Falls in southern Vermont, the Our Place Drop-In Center has served 53 percent more meals in the last year and has seen a 19 percent increase in the number of people using its food shelf in the first 10 months of this year.

The center is seeing more people who have been laid off, others working two or three small jobs, and more extended families living together, said executive director Susan Shea.

October was a record month for donations at the food shelf in St. Albans but what came in barely meets the need and requires more work and volunteers to distribute, said Joe Zorn, food shelf coordinator.

"We're keeping up but just barely. And it's only thanks to so many food drives," he said.

The Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington has been serving 1,000 more individuals each year for the past two years, with a rise in the number of people recently laid off and refugees and immigrants using the services, said executive director Rob Meehan.

Darlene Mitchell, 42, of Burlington, a hospital housekeeper, said Wednesday she doesn't make enough money to pay her bills and feed her whole family a full turkey dinner.

"It's good to know that there's people to help us when we need help," said Mitchell.

Like other clients, she had to qualify under federal poverty eligibility guidelines in order to get the food, said Meehan.

The food shelf reached its goal of collecting about 3,000 turkeys this year, even though food drives are down, in some cases by more than 50 percent.

"It's amazing what people will do for their neighbors," Meehan said.

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Associated Press correspondent John Curran contributed to this report from Burlington, Vt.