Burlington Free Press, May 21, 2008: Demand for food services rising in Vermont

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By Terri Hallenbeck • Free Press Staff Writer • May 21, 2008

Crystal Rockwell can tell the story by looking around. As she loads up on cereal, SpaghettiOs and macaroni at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, she notices more people are doing the same. As she looks around her Burlington neighborhood, she sees more people living on the streets.

“There۪s a lot of people coming in here. A lot of new people I haven۪t seen,” Rockwell said on a visit Tuesday to the food shelf.

Numbers back up the story.

The Burlington food shelf saw its clients surge by more than 2,000 from 6,691 in the last quarter of 2006 to 8,827 in the last quarter of 2007, Director Rob Meehan said.

More people are also using food stamps. Some 55,750 Vermonters received food stamps in March, the highest number since record-setting 1994, said Renee Richardson, food and nutrition programs director at the state Department for Children. The number of visits to a Vermont food stamp Web site doubled in March.

“Every month we are seeing an increase,” Richardson said.

The average Vermont household on food stamps receives $187 a month, she said. That $187 doesn۪t buy as much as it did a year ago. Dairy prices are up 12 percent in the last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while cereals and bakery products rose 9 percent and poultry 5 percent. The USDA announced Monday that overall food prices are expected to rise another 5 percent this year, the largest increase since 1990.

Meehan said his office which provides hot meals, a food pantry and deliveries for the homebound is seeing more working poor who are being crushed by increases in fuel, food and housing prices.

“The people who I۪m seeing are the traditional middle class. They can۪t believe they۪re here,” Meehan said. “They say, I only need this for a short time.۪ Those are eye-openers.”

The trend has prompted his staff to consider changing the food shelf۪s 8 a.m.-4 p.m. hours for clients with daytime jobs.

Meehan wonders what some of those families will do when school breaks for the summer and children are no longer receiving breakfast or lunch. There are summer programs available, including the food shelf۪s bagged lunch that starts June 16, but those who۪ve never sought the help before often don۪t know what۪s out there, he said.

“I think people who were getting by just aren۪t now,” said Cassandra Gekas, food stamp outreach and policy specialist with the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

Her organization has teamed with the state to put the word out about food stamp eligibility. They operate a Web site that allows people to plug in information and find out if they qualify and what kind of benefits they might expect to receive.

Though the state administers the food stamp program, the benefits are paid by the federal government. Every $1 that a Vermonter receives in food stamps provides an estimated $1.84 to the Vermont economy by being spent locally.

The Farm Bill that Congress sent to President Bush should provide some help, Meehan said, by increasing food stamp money and the amount of food the federal government sends.

Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 229-1297 or

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