Hungry Vermonters face cuts in aid

hunger web

Joe Patrissi at the NEKCA food shelf. Mr. Patrissi said it was fully stocked on Monday morning, but demand is great, and a few hours later several of its shelves were bare. Photo by Tena Starr

Years ago, Kim Arel found herself in a tough spot.  She had two young children to feed, and for a brief time the only way to swing that was to visit a food shelf.  “I was surprised to see other people there that I didn’t think I would,” she said in a recent interview.

Later, when she was in a better place, Ms. Arel decided to pay it forward, and became a donor to food shelves herself.  And for the past 12 years or so, she’s been running the food shelf in Jay, which serves five towns.

Last week, she said, many of her clientele were talking about the latest round of cuts to 3SquaresVT, the program that helps poor Vermonters put food on the table.  “They don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Those cuts, which will take effect on November 1, are due to the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, which passed in 2009 and included a temporary increase for help with food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The temporary boost increased the monthly SNAP benefit by 14 percent.

In Vermont, the funding reduction will mean that a household of four will lose $36 a month.  The maximum possible monthly benefit currently for that size household is $668; it would be cut to $632.  The maximum benefit for a household of two is $367, which would be cut by $20 to $347.

The cut will be equivalent to taking away 21 meals per month for a family of four, or 16 meals for a family of three, according to the National Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  That’s based on the calculation that a meal costs $1.70 to $2.

“USDA research has found that the Recovery Act’s benefit boost cut the number of households in which one or more persons had to skip meals or otherwise eat less because they lacked money —what USDA calls ‘very low food security’ — by about 500,000 households in 2009,” says a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.

Ms. Arel said that 40 to 50 percent of the Jay Food Shelf’s clientele are seniors or people who are disabled and can’t work.

“It’s from the young to the old,” she said about the people who frequent the food shelf.  “One lady came in and said they cut $29.  Some people think $29 isn’t that much, but that’s milk, that’s a loaf of bread.  It matters.  Twenty-nine dollars is a lot to some people.”

There are 27,000 people in Orleans County.  Between 6,300 and 6,400 get food stamps, called 3SquaresVT now, said Joe Patrissi, head of NEKCA, the Northeast Kingdom’s community action and anti-poverty agency.  Sixty to 70 percent of school children are eligible for free lunch.

Cuts to SNAP and other programs for the poor, a reduction in donations to the Vermont Foodbank, combined with high housing costs and a political climate that does not favor the needy has created a “perfect storm,” Mr. Patrissi said.

In Orleans County, as of June of this year, 3,220 households were recipients of 3SquaresVT, and there were 6,328 people in those households, according to the Vermont Department for Children and Families.  Of those, 2,178 were children under 18.

In Essex County, there were 1,465 recipients in 769 households, with 442 of those under 18.

In Caledonia County, there were 6,385 recipients in 3,252 households, with 2,216 recipients under 18.

In far more populated Chittenden County, the number of recipients was 17,788 with a total benefit allotment of $2,251,953.

The monthly allotment in Orleans County totaled $757,471 in June.  In Essex County, the total was $174,263.  And in Caledonia County, it was $780,167.

For pretty much as long as anyone can remember, the Northeast Kingdom has been the poorest area of Vermont with the highest unemployment rate and lowest incomes, Mr. Patrissi at NEKCA said.

“There’s a lot of deep poverty here.  Food stamps, at best, is an assistance program.  Most people don’t make it through the month.”

With less, they’ll be harder pressed, he said.  “People are coming to the food shelf in numbers like we’ve never seen before.”

This year NEKCA has handed out 18,000 food boxes so far, each meant to feed a family for three days, Mr. Patrissi said.  Last year, it gave out 13,000 boxes of food.

In 2012, it handled 1,700 crisis fuel deliveries and helped with 152 back rent payments.  It helped another 210 people find emergency shelter.

NEKCA has 150 employees, 200 kids in Head Start, and 98 in Early Head Start.

On Monday, NEKCA had fully stocked its shelves with a delivery from Shaw’s, but by noon they had been pretty well stripped.

When that happens some people move on to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, which also operates a food shelf.  St. Mark’s gives out about 100 bags of groceries per month, said Nancy Castle.  “We give one bag of groceries per person per visit,” she said.

Three main groups frequent St. Mark’s food shelf, Ms. Castle said.  There’s the senior population, primarily older women who live alone in the neighborhood.  “Then we have single moms with one or two children.  The third group is single guys who are recently out of jail and are temporarily living in the area.  A month from now we won’t see them again.”

Ms. Castle said St. Mark’s doesn’t ask questions of its clientele, but she does not think many are working, except for the mothers who are in Vermont’s Reach Up program.

“Many who come in are regulars — about half.  The other half we see once, maybe twice, and then we don’t see them again.  It’s varied and a pretty mobile population.”

She does not, however, think people are simply taking advantage of free food. “There’s always one person who’s maybe not above board,” she said.  “But I think people are just hungry.”

Just guessing, Ms. Arel said she thinks perhaps 10 percent of those who come into the Jay food shelf could be out looking for work.  But up to half are people who are seniors or disabled, she said.

“I get a lot of working mothers,” she said.  In some families, both husband and wife are working, but they still run out of food, she said.

Summers can be busy because people are laid off from Jay Peak and are living on unemployment.  Also, with school out, families have to come up with two more meals each day for their children, Ms. Arel said.

She empathizes with most of the folks who show up for a bag of groceries because she remembers how it felt to have to ask for help.  “If they have kids and have to buy clothes and shoes, what’s their income for food?”

The number of people who frequent the food shelf has been slowly but steadily increasing, Ms. Arel said, and she’s seeing some new clients who are “very uncomfortable” about asking for help.

She buys most of the food from the Vermont Foodbank, which sells food by the pound to the organizations it serves.  The five towns served by the food shelf make donations annually at Town Meeting.  Some individuals regularly donate.  And the Jay Focus Group is always helping, Ms. Arel said.  “They’re a very good group.”

“We have a lot of local support.  In the summer there are three different vegetable stands I can go to, and a lot of them will cut their prices or donate.”

The Jay Food Shelf also takes donations of good clothing, which it, in turn, gives away.

“You wouldn’t believe how much clothing we give away,” Ms. Arel said.  Just recently, she said, one woman came in looking for something appropriate to wear to the job she’d just got.

It’s a rough time for the poor, Mr. Patrissi said.  Fuel assistance has also suffered cuts.  And a recent study says a person must make $13.10 an hour in Orleans County in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

“If you have a minimum wage job, you aren’t going to be able to afford housing,” Mr. Patrissi said.  “What people do is they juggle the budget.”  They rob the food budget to pay for fuel, and they rob fuel to pay rent, he said.

“All these cuts in these programs are a perfect storm for people,” Mr. Patrissi said.  “There’s less of everything available to people who are poor.  To compound that, we have the highest rate of unemployment, and we have all these people who are having a hard time paying their bills.”

And to compound that, the Vermont Food Bank — the biggest source of food for Vermont’s food shelves — has seen a recent cut in donations.

“Less than a month ago, our largest food rescue donor told us they would no longer be making perishable food donations to food banks throughout New England,” said Vermont Food Bank Director of Food Resources in a press release.  “We’re already seeing a 10 percent shortfall in donated product, so this additional reduction in nutritious, donated food will severely impact our food distribution to agencies throughout the state.”

The Vermont Foodbank, which started in 1986, is already facing a 2.2 million meal gap and expects that to increase with the impending cuts in 3SquaresVT.

The Foodbank, which moves about 8 million tons of food annually, serves 278 agencies, said Judy Sterner, its director of communications and public affairs.  They include senior centers, after school programs, food shelves and pantries.

When the SNAP cuts take effect, “We’re bracing for huge numbers of people coming to food shelves, Ms. Sterner said.

Locally, Shaw’s still donates food to the NEKCA food shelf, Mr. Patrissi said.  “The Shaw’s here is still giving us food.  They’re still in the game.  If we lose them, it will be a big loss.”

But the grocery chain, which was responsible for 8 percent of the Foodbank’s total donations, has decided to stop its “fresh food rescue program,” Ms. Sterner said.

Hannaford continues to donate, although Ms. Sterner said grocery stores are getting better at what they do, and there’s less wasted food to contribute to the needy.

Grocery stores receive a tax deduction for their donations, Ms. Sterner said.

Farmers don’t, but they donate anyway, she said.  “That’s just their generosity.”   The Foodbank is working with about 100 farmers, Ms. Sterner said.

About 86,000 Vermonters need help feeding themselves or their families, she said.  “The demographic is all across the board.  “Sixty-four percent of the people we serve live in a household where one or more people are working.  We have artificially low wages.  And there’s disability and there’s a lack of quality jobs in the state of Vermont.  We really do have a need for industry — not just a grocery store job, or a job at McDonald’s making minimum wage.”

There’s been a slow, steady increase in the need for food in Vermont, Ms. Sterner said, and demand jumps in the summer when children are out of school.

It’s common for people to suggest that the poor are poor for reasons of their own making, Ms. Sterner said.

But most people don’t want to go to a basement somewhere and get handed a box of food that’s not even of their own choosing, she said.  “That’s not what people want.  That’s not how people want to live.

“We’ve made it politically okay for our leaders to cut programs for education and for food, which affects those who live on the margin, who live paycheck to paycheck,” Ms. Sterner said.

On the bright side, there’s potential for more jobs with Bill Stenger’s plans for economic development, Mr. Patrissi said.

And, he said, the community has stepped up and is helping its less fortunate neighbors.  Donations from businesses as well as civic organizations, individuals and fund-raisers have become major factors in keeping food shelves stocked and helping Head Start programs, he said.

“The community is stepping up and giving back to us.”

“You can’t depend on them at all,” he said about the government.  “We need to do what we can do as we go through these gauntlets of cuts.”

The Northeast Kingdom’s chronic poverty hasn’t much to do with laziness, Mr. Patrissi said.  It’s rooted more in the lack of higher education and a dearth of economic opportunity.

“Last spring we had a receptionist job open.   Seventy-five people applied.  It isn’t like people aren’t looking for work or don’t want to work.  The people who can work are looking for work.  I want to be very clear.  People here want to work.”

For some, childcare is a problem.  It’s expensive and not always readily available.  Transportation in a rural area is another hurdle, Mr. Patrissi noted.  It’s not cheap to buy and maintain a car and keep gas in it.

But one of the biggest hurdles people grapple with is lack of education or specific skills, Mr. Patrissi said.  “If you just have a high school diploma, you are going to be underemployed.   If you have specific credentials, you’re going to get paid more money than if you’re a clerk at Rite Aid.”

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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