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Two Vermont counties combine efforts to feed the hungry

click to enlarge Ethan Dezotelle
  • Ethan Dezotelle

Amid talk of food shelves, economic woes and struggling nonprofits, Ethan Dezotelle recalls a scene from last Thanksgiving. He was busy donating frozen turkeys to families via the Enosburg Food Shelf, which Dezotelle, 33, had co-founded that fall.

A boy walked in with his mother, and when Dezotelle handed her the big, chilled bird, the child — eyebrows raised, jaw dropped — screeched in delight.

“If I had walked up to that kid and handed him a Wii,” Dezotelle says now, “it wouldn’t have gotten the same reaction as the turkey he got for Thanksgiving.”

Dezotelle is seated in a plush, high-backed chair in the window of St. Albans City’s Park Café. Perhaps it’s an unfitting place to discuss local hunger, as the lunch crowd chows down, but Dezotelle doesn’t note the irony. He knows that not everyone in Franklin County will eat lunch today.

“I wish we’d had this idea a year ago,” Dezotelle says, gazing out the window, “before everything got to be the way it was.”

“This idea” is the Franklin-Grand Isle Food Council, a volunteer group that Dezotelle and Stephanie Kamal, of the Swanton Food Shelf, formed in late summer to address hunger and nutrition in their two-county region.

“Who knows what winter will bring?” Dezotelle asks.

According to the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger website, 26,000 Vermont households comprising 76,000 people — including 19,000 children — are hungry or “food insecure.” More than 6000 people in the bi-county area use food stamps, and about 1200 households — half of them working — use emergency food programs. State statistics also show that more than 3000 students in Franklin and Grand Isle counties receive free or reduced school lunches; about half of those come to school with an empty stomach.

It used to be mostly homeless people lining up at the local food shelf. Not anymore. Dezotelle has noticed a new trend, particularly this year: Working families are choosing between paying for heat, food or gas.

“I don’t know of any ‘fuel shelves,’” Dezotelle says.

The need is undeniable. But why start a new food council? Cynics might dismiss the FGIFC as just another in a growing list of hunger-related organizations: In addition to small-town food shelves, Vermont has statewide ones such as the Vermont Food Bank and the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

Joanne Heidkamp, director of the latter, says new organizations such as the FGIFC can serve a valuable role as coordinators: “Unfortunately, our society’s response to hunger is fragmented: local food shelves, meals on wheels, school meals, community suppers, the food-stamp program — all are run by separate entities, and no one is responsible for understanding the big picture, suggesting priorities, identifying gaps.”

For example, the 13 food shelves in the FGIFC’s coverage area operate under inconsistent criteria; while one requires documented proof of residence and household size, others do not. Also, Dezotelle says, some food shelves have turned away donations for lack of space, without realizing a nearby shelf could use that food or help store it. Now the FGIFC can oversee donations and space for all the food shelves while maintaining lines of communication among them.

Another thing the area hunger charities sorely need is a food processing plant. Franklin County has industrial cheese, chocolate and ice cream manufacturers, but no business that collects goods from local food producers and cans them for distribution.

The FGIFC has explored the idea of asking farmers to donate rows of crops to food shelves. That might be difficult, says Bill Rowell, a lifelong dairy farmer, because sweet corn is the only crop farmers tend to plant in extra rows for their personal use. To grow specialized rows of other crops in a huge field — with huge machinery — wouldn’t be an efficient deployment of time or resources.

For a more diverse crop, Rowell recommends that the FGIFC join with the Franklin County Farm Service Agency office to scout fallow land and plant and tend crops there, with help from volunteers and maybe also retired farmers.

“Farmers are the last to sit down until everyone’s tended to,” says Rowell, who owns Green Mountain Dairy Farm in Sheldon with his brother Brian. “They are a resourceful bunch of people. If they can help, they will.”

The crop donations and processing facility are long-term goals for the FGIFC, while the development of a printed resource guide for needy families is on a short-term list. Even more immediate, though, the FGIFC — like many of the state’s donation-dependent nonprofits — simply wants to help unfortunate people trudge through the holidays and winter.

The FGIFC’s founders look to Dane County, Wisconsin, as a model for their program. Now three years old, the Dane County Food Council helped develop a food facility and public market, established a network of countywide farmers’ markets, and promotes and markets local foods by educating consumers about their nutritional value. “They’ve done great things out there,” says Dezotelle, who may visit Dane County next year.

Back in St. Albans, Linda Ryan directs the Samaritan House, an upper-level transitional housing shelter on Kingman Street. Her clients eat at Martha’s Kitchen, which offers free and hot meals downstairs. Since August, Ryan has operated in “winter overflow status,” filling four more beds than her standard 10. More people in more beds sparks a need for more meals, and that eats into the Samaritan House budget.

“I think we’ve gone way over budget for food this year,” Ryan said. “It’s an ongoing battle. Everybody’s competing for the same money, and they all have worthy causes.”

Like the food shelf staff, Ryan and Mary Gibson, director of Martha’s Kitchen for 10 years, have seen more middle-class working families seeking help. Martha’s Kitchen is serving 40 to 50 people a day, almost double the number it fed at this time in 2007. And that’s just breakfast and lunch, during business hours. Martha’s Kitchen expects to feed about 60 people for lunch on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“I’m not sure what it will be like for us in a month or two,” Gibson says.

The FGIFC is poised to help keep organizations like Ryan’s and Gibson’s afloat, and both foresee an extensive collaboration with the new council.

The Franklin-Grand Isle United Way is getting in the spirit. Each holiday season, it organizes a toy and food drive for the region called “Operation Happiness,” during which volunteers pack and deliver hundreds of gift boxes at the National Guard Armory in St. Albans. This year, the Franklin-Grand Isle Community Partnership has teamed with the fledging FGIFC to add a new component to Operation Happiness: a food drive called Cram the Complex.

Cram the Complex is akin to Pack the Paramount, which annually challenges Rutland residents to fill their city’s theater with edibles for the needy. “The economy played a huge factor in the development of this idea,” says Angela Baker of Fairfax, who spearheaded the new effort. “It’s hard to sit through meetings and talk, talk, talk about how bad things are and how many families will need assistance this winter. I wanted to do something, rather than just talk about it.”

Less talk and more action was also Dezotelle’s motive for getting his idea of a local food council off the ground as quickly as possible. The FGIFC will not seek nonprofit status immediately because, Dezotelle says, he doesn’t want fundraising to distract staff from the council’s mission: to provide as many food-related resources to as many people as possible.

Though Dezotelle still meets skeptics who charge not all recipients qualify for free food, he thinks the harsh realities of local hunger are getting harder and harder to ignore. “I don’t care what cliché you want to throw back at me, or tell me what you think you know,” Dezotelle says. “I have yet to meet someone who’s happy to use a food shelf.”

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