By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — When Martha Chesley, a longtime volunteer at the Bristol food shelf, staffed the shelf’s August distribution night a few weeks ago, something struck her as different.
“I noticed people that I’ve never seen come here before,” she said. And, when she later took a look at the food shelf’s stocks, she and the other volunteers noticed that “things were pretty slim.”
Chesley’s gut feeling — that more families are turning out for food assistance, and that food shelves are struggling to keep up with rising demand — turned out to be more than just a hunch.
In a trend that reaches beyond Bristol, area food shelves are seeing increased traffic as more families — more new faces — turn out for food assistance.
“We’ve taken a jump,” the co-director of Bristol’s food shelf, Rebecca Price, confirmed. “Shelves are getting bare.”
Last month, Price said, the number of families coming to the shelf for help jumped from a relatively steady 30 or 35 per month to 46 — a significant increase for a small, donations-only operation.
In Vergennes, at the much-larger food shelf in the Congregational Church, numbers have also been shooting up. (Unlike the Bristol shelf, which opens up just once a month to distribute bags of food, the shelf in Vergennes is open three times a week, serving families from as far afield as Orwell, Monkton and Starksboro.)
Between 2006 and 2007, the number of families using the food shelf at the Vergennes Congregational Church jumped 25 percent, and they’ve seen another 25-percent hike this year, according to food shelf coordinator Mary Ann Castimore.
Now, Castimore said, the shelf is helping feed around 125 households.
“We’re no different than anybody else,” Castimore said. “These are tough economic times for just about everybody.”
And in Middlebury, at one of the county’s largest food shelves, the Addison Community Action-run pantry has seen perhaps the biggest jump of all. Three or four years ago, food shelf coordinator Donna Rose said, her office saw one or two new households a month.
Last month, that number was 18 — which, after an increase of “eight new households, then 10, then 12” a month, means the shelf has seen a total of between 50 and 60 new families during the last few months.
“People come in and say, ‘I’ve never done this before. I’ve never asked for help before,’” Rose said. But for the roughly 150 households that use the shelf — that do not qualify for food stamps, but fall under certain income criteria — making ends meet is becoming harder and harder.
The culprit? A cost of living that is rising at the fastest rate since the recession of the early 1990s, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Labor. That cost of living is driven especially high by the increased price of food and fuel.
“As a result of fuel costs … people just don’t have the money for food,” Rose said.
And in Vergennes, Castimore noticed that many of the individuals coming to the shelf for the first time are senior citizens who have never needed assistance before, but who are struggling to survive on fixed incomes.
“They just can’t make ends meet between food and fuel and gas and medicine,” Castimore said.
At all three food shelves, coordinators predict that the coming heating season will only bring more new faces through the door.
The question now remains how to handle that influx.
In Bristol, where the shelf is low on canned vegetables and staples like cereal and spaghetti sauce, volunteers are scrambling for ways to bring in more food. Price said she and the other volunteers are doing their best to meet the growing need, but it’s a small facility, and they don’t have the storage capacity to order large pallets of food through the Vermont Food Bank.
Instead, the Bristol shelf relies solely on donations — of either money or food — from the community.
Price prefers food donations, which she said gives the community a way to be directly involved. In addition to donation staples like dried and canned foods, Price said that at this time of year, the shelf gladly accepts donations of fresh food from gardens or local farms.
And she’s hoping the community will step up with ideas for ways to bring in more supplies. She’d love to see classrooms at local schools compete to bring in the most pounds of food, for example.
The Vergennes shelf is also holding out hope for generous donations. Unlike Bristol, the shelf buys some of its food from the Vermont Food Bank, where, Castimore explained, their dollars go further than they would at a grocery store. But donations are at the crux of their operation.
“We’re always hoping and praying for good donations,” Castimore said. Last year, she said, the community was especially charitable — and she hopes that same generosity comes through this year as well.
“We’ll take food, we’ll take money, we’ll take just about anything” Castimore said.
In Middlebury, Rose said, the supply of food is not yet a concern. The Addison Community Action shelf, a satellite office of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, receives federal funding, which helps keep supplies running strong.
But their funding hasn’t increased, meaning that donations will be more important for their shelves too if numbers continue to increase.
In the meantime, said Rose, “we continue to do whatever we can do at whatever level we can do it.”