Tiffany Griffiths examined the canned foods and meat at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf as she gathered her bounty for the rest of the week a few weeks before Thanksgiving.
“It’s hit or miss if you’re lucky,” Griffiths said, explaining that some days at the food shelf, it is impossible to find what she is looking for.
Griffiths said she has been homeless for more than a year, based mostly in downtown Burlington so she can stay close to the bus line. She said relies on food stamps, using the food shelf to buy groceries for her and a friend about two to three times per month — only when they need it most.
With the amount they are allotted, Griffiths said she and her friend try to do the best they can.
“If you’re literally living on food stamps, ours are gone in less than two weeks,” Griffiths said.
Griffiths is one of at least 12,000 people per year the food shelf serves.
Executive Director Rob Meehan said at least 400 to 600 people pass through the facility per day, going through about 1 million to 1 ½ million pounds of food per year, depending on donations and support from The Emergency Food Assistance Program.
According to the The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) website, the amount of food received by each state depends on the low-income and unemployment population, and this food is then distributed among organizations who work with these people.
The Burlington food shelf strives to alleviate hunger and create opportunities for the people who utilize the center, Meehan said. In addition to providing food to families in need, the food shelf runs programs such as culinary job training, a soup kitchen, grocery delivery for people who are homebound, and a clothing distribution area.
“We are dealing with a lot of challenges to food access — some that are very real in the economic sense: less food available, less money for people who are on food stamps, less TEFAP food,” Meehan said, adding that the number of people in need has not gone down. With the colder weather beginning, Meehan said more people will be drawn to the food shelf.
The importance of food extends past survival, especially during the holiday season, Meehan said, since it gathers people together to talk and celebrate. However, food is not an end-all for existing issues with the food system, he said.
“We’re not going to solve poverty and hunger with boxes of food, and we understand that,” Meehan said. “It’s going to take a lot of different things to help. I wish I could say there’s going to be a time where we don’t need community support, but this is a time where we need community support more than ever.”
But community donations have become fewer and fewer each year, Meehan said. Meehan said the center has about a million dollar budget each fiscal year, and about 65 percent of that budget is gathered through donations.
“Unfortunately, it’s worse than last year right now,” Meehan said, explaining that the food shelf has had to develop innovative ways to stretch its budget and keep up with the demand.
Through its culinary job training program Community Kitchen Academy, Meehan said the center has leveraged some federal money it used to develop and enhance a food production and packaging area. Meehan said the food shelf is mindful of the food it produces and distributes, creating health-conscious choices for those who use it.
“We can stretch our food dollars more because we’re making things locally, and also improving the nutritional quality of the food,” Meehan said. “It’s sort of a double whammy there. It’s helping us to be more cost-effective in what we do.”
Meehan said the shelf is also trying to make the process of receiving food assistance more dignified, instituting a key tag system where people can swipe a tag upon entrance into the center. This gives the center a more supermarket-like feel, he said.
“There’s still a stigma attached to receiving assistance, and that’s just sad. We try to make our process easy and comfortable,” Meehan said. “The more dignified and the more professional we can be as far as customer service goes, we feel like we’re completing our mission in a better way.”
The picture is not completely glum, however, Meehan said. Food and clothing donations are still received on a regular basis even with the overall downward donation trend. Meehan said he tries to share these donation stories on the food shelf’s Facebook page to inspire others to do the same.
“You get to see the generosity,” he said. “You get motivated and sort of charged with, ‘We have to do better,’ all the time.”
Meehan said he is asking for the community’s continued financial support not only to keep up with the demand of those in need, but also to continue to be more innovative in how the shelf faces food challenges.
“This is the time of the year when people gather,” Meehan said. “If it’s not with family members, hopefully it’s with friends or some kind of circle of support where people can gather and be thankful for each other, be thankful to be alive, whatever we can find thanks in. For people who are struggling to feel that victimized, we actually have to help that person to see that there’s something to be thankful for.”
Griffiths also expressed her plea to the community not to forget the food shelf, since donations are “desperately needed.”
“My family used to be one that always donated to that kind of stuff, so to really be on the other side of it is eye-opening,” Griffiths said. “I’m 40 now and I never thought I’d end up shopping here. It’s been really a reality check as far as that goes.”