BRATTLEBORO—During the annual Load the Latchis Food Drive, donors put bags of groceries and supplies into almost every seat of the 762-seat Latchis Theatre — a dramatic gesture that celebrates the generosity of the community.
But looks can deceive.
Those donations lasted for all of three or four days, said Rosie Gardner, food shelf coordinator at the Groundworks Drop-In Center in Brattleboro.
For the past year, Gardner has managed the program, which is open four days a week. Typically, 50 households have accessed the food shelf each time it’s open. But Groundworks has been serving 80 visitors on some days.
Gardner said she can’t pinpoint why more people are using the food shelf, the second largest in the state.
What she does know is that she is also receiving fewer boxes of free food than she used to from the Vermont Foodbank.
A year ago, said Gardner, her supplemental shopping budget was $350 a week. Now, with the reduction of large food donations, her weekly shopping averages $1,000.
Gardner said she is thankful to local businesses like Price Chopper and Hannaford and food drives like Project Feed the Thousands that provide donations when they can.
“Peanut butter and tuna are staples for us,” said Gardner, who was drawn to work at the food shelf because “food is such a basic human need.” She would like to have more high-quality proteins for clients, such as meat and cheese.
Less food available, more people in need
Food shelves and similar organizations can purchase food from the Vermont Foodbank. When the Vermont FoodBank receives donated food, it passes these items on to food shelves for free.
But according to Alex Bornstein, chief operations officer at the Vermont Foodbank, the bank itself receives less free food these days.
Bornstein points to food manufacturers creating a better supply chain as one reason that donations to the food bank have decreased. Companies have improved their manufacturing and distribution practices so there is less “waste,” like mislabeled products, he said.
Companies used to donate these unsellable products to organizations like the food bank, he said, noting that last year, these types of donations dropped 35 percent.
Bornstein said the food bank also competes with other areas in online auctions run by Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks. If an item is desirable, it typically goes to the larger metropolitan areas like New York, Boston, or San Francisco.
Feeding America started in 1979 as a clearinghouse for national food donations. It now includes a network of 200 food banks and is the country’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, according to its website.
According to Feeding America, one in seven Americans struggles with hunger.
Bornstein noted that local farmers also provide the Vermont Foodbank with produce. This year, 85 farms collectively provided the food bank with a quarter of the produce it passed on to food shelves. A family farm in Québec filled the remaining need, or approximately 1.7 million pounds of produce.
Two years ago, the Vermont Foodbank moved 8.2 million pounds of food onto food shelves and organizations feeding hungry people in the state, Bornstein said. Last year, the amount increased to 10 million pounds. This year, the food bank expects to provide 11 million pounds of food.
Despite the yearly increases, in Bornstein’s estimation, people’s individual needs aren’t increasing. Instead, the food bank is getting better at distributing food to more hungry Vermonters.
One new program is a direct distribution program to senior housing sites with 30 or more units, he said. The program’s next phase is to target smaller housing areas.
Transportation is the primary barrier to lower-income people receiving services in rural areas, he said.
Food-shelf managers are clever about building and accessing a network of providers and donations, Bornstein said, adding that there is a lot of good work being done.
Gardner feels more of the food that once went to the food shelves has made its way to the secondary market, and she says that she sees “all the stuff I used to get” sitting on the shelves of discount stores.
But Bornstein doesn’t think the food bank or food shelves are missing out on donations because of a “secondary market” for surplus food like Mr. G’s Liquidation Centers or Ocean State Job Lot. That market has always been there, he said.
Also finding that donations from national food distributors are down is Telos Whitfield, project coordinator for Healthy Harvest Network, a collaboration between seven food banks in southern Vermont and the nonprofit organization Food Connects.
The program seeks to support the food shelves through building partnerships, combining resources, addressing challenges, and tackling local distribution issues.
The Fanny Holt Ames and Edna Louise Holt Fund in Grafton has provided $75,000 of funding for two years, she said.
One focus of Healthy Harvest is to build relationships with local farms, Whitfield said. Through a combination of gleaning — collecting remaining produce from local fields after they have been harvested commercially — and donations, Healthy Harvest can provide food banks with more local products and produce.
Whitfield said the seven food shelves she works with are serving more people. In a recent survey conducted by Healthy Harvest, many respondents identified as seniors or as working.
More pressure on the budget
A combination of factors has made many people hungrier, Whitfield said: rising rents, accumulating medical bills, unemployment. The pressure often forces people to choose to pay for heating oil instead of buying food.
Regardless of the cause, she said, for food-shelf clients, the monthly food budget does not stretch the whole month.
“It’s difficult for people to cross the threshold of a food shelf for the first time,” she said.
A hidden blessing of the food shelves is that they can double as quasi-community centers, Whitfield added.
People accessing food can also access a support network that “allows people to know they’re not alone in their need,” she said. “It fosters a neighbor-helping-neighbor mentality.”
Local communities and businesses are generous with their donations, especially during food drives, Whitfield said.
But food shelves still need to supplement donations with purchases.
For example, the items received at a food drive are inconstant, she said. A food shelf might receive an abundance of cold cereal during one food drive but no tuna. Next time around it might be loads of peanut butter but not enough of other items.
One way Healthy Harvest tries to balance these food-flow issues — if Brattleboro receives extra cabbage, for example, while Putney has too many carrots — is to let member food shelves swap excess product.
Some of the food shelves struggle with storage space, Whitfield said. Putney’s food shelf is essentially a closet, while Guilford’s food shelf borrows space in the Broad Brook Grange, a building used for multiple events.
Gardner cited another factor: people using the Brattleboro food shelf tell her their 3SquaresVT (food stamps) benefits have been cut.
“I don’t know why,” said Gardner. “They weren’t really enough in the first place.”