Friday November 30, 2012

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON - According to leaders of local food shelves, most of their donations come in around the holidays and every bit is needed as federal food assistance budgets either fluctuate or remain unknown.

The Vermont Foodbank, which supplies most of the state's food shelves with commodities, is reporting a 50 percent reduction in the amount of food it gets from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). "We are down 1.2 million lbs of food in TEFAP commodities," said Judy Stermer, spokeswoman for the Vermont Foodbank. TEFAP, or The Emergency Food Assistance Program, is partially made up of discretionary spending, which the Secretary of Agriculture decides on whether or not to release based on agricultural markets. Stermer said because those markets were good this year and did not need a boost from the USDA, the discretionary funds have not been released.

Stermer said for fiscal year 2011, Bennington County food shelves received 119,000 lbs of commodity foods such as pasta, beans, and dry meat, while in fiscal year 2012 they only received 60,000 lbs. Stermer said there has also been a 15 percent increase in the need for the food the Foodbank provides. She said the American Foodbank, the national version of the Vermont Foodbank, has been urging people to ask their Congressional deletions to put pressure on the USDA to release the funds.

Emmy McCusker, president of the Community Food Cupboard in Manchester, which serves that town and 12 others to the north, said local generosity has so far made up for the slump in aid from the Vermont Foodbank. She said supermarkets such as Hannaford's and Price Chopper have helped, as have local residents. She said winter is a difficult time as during the summer her organization and others make use of local community gardens, farms, and other growers for fresh vegetables. She said one grower provided 10,000 lbs of produce over the summer, and her organization currently assists 950 people in 350 families.

"So far we are holding our own and the community has been very responsive," McCusker said.

Stermer said what has many worried is the state of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps. In Vermont, the programs is known as 3squaresVt. Angela Smith-Dieng, 3SquaresVt advocacy manager with Hunger Free Vermont said funding for 3SquaresVt has been put with the Farm Bill, which may be passed as part of a larger omnibus bill by the end of the year. She said the Senate version of the Farm Bill is cutting SNAP funding by $4.5 billion, while the House of Representatives version has it cut by $16.5 billion. She said the House version has left the House agricultural committee, but not gone before the full House.

Smith-Dieng said it's anyone's guess as to how Congress will act, but with talk of the "fiscal cliff" dominating discussions, it's not likely the Farm Bill will get specific attention. Smith-Dieng said one thing new this year is the ability for families receiving 3SquaresVt benefits but who are not getting help from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will be given between $3 and $5 of LIHEAP money so they can leverage between $50 and $100 more in food assistance.

She said 3SquaresVt families who have heating bills can apply for LIHEAP funding, which lets them access more in food assistance. These people will not see a change, but those 3SquaresVt recipients who live in apartments where heat is included in rent and they do not pay directly for fuel can get the added food a fuel customer would have access to. She said the recipients do not have to fill out new forms.

Locally, food shelves are still seeing the same level of need, if not more, that they saw during the recession. Many say the bulk of their monetary and food donations come through during the holidays, between October and the end of the year.

"This is a problem year-round, not just these couple of weeks," said Sue Andrews, director of The Kitchen Cupboard, a project of Greater Bennington Area Interfaith Community Services (GBICS). She said the cupboard works to supply Thanksgiving style meals around that holiday, but in many ways it's business as usual. "Our goal is to feed people 365 days a year."

She said about one-third of GBICS' $155,000 expense budget is donated between November and December when people are more aware of need and in giving mood. She said much comes from businesses. The Council also runs the Bennington Free Clinic as well as the Food and Fuel Fund, which Andrews said these days focuses more on food.

She said there has not been a slow-down in the amount of people needing the Cupboard's services. "I would say these people are the poorest of the poor," she said. Some are on benefit programs that supply them with $700 per month, which is not enough to cover rent, much less other expenses. "I would say the circumstances locally remain very desperate for that group of people."

McCusker echoed Andrews, saying her food shelf is still seeing new faces, including two families who recently started going their because the income earners were laid off from their jobs.

For a complete list of food shelves and similar services in Bennington County all over Vermont, one can call 1-800-585-2265, dial 211, or visit www.vtfoodbank.org.