Hunger isn’t hidden in Vermont’s most affluent county. On the third Friday of every month, it shows itself in a startling spectacle on the sidewalk outside the Imani Youth and Family Center on Burlington’s North Winooski Avenue. In scenes reminiscent of Depression-era bread lines, 100 or more Chittenden County residents await the 3 p.m. food giveaway, at which each receives a cardboard box filled with canned goods, bread, pasta and, occasionally, meat.
In this lean year, Imani (“faith” in Swahili) has been distributing more than 20,000 pounds of food per month, according to Trista Miller, one of the center’s two paid staffers. Down the street at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, some 12,000 Vermonters are expected to pick up provisions by the end of this year. That’s not counting the 200 or so who show up for a daily handout of bread and produce, or the 50-plus who eat a morning meal at the Food Shelf’s soup kitchen every weekday.
The Barre-based Vermont Food Bank supplied Imani, the Food Shelf and more than 250 other agencies around the state with nearly 8 million pounds of food in 2008. That’s the equivalent of 13 pounds for every person in Vermont. And Food Bank spokeswoman Judy Stermer expects the amount to be significantly higher in 2009, the second year of a deep recession. Some local agencies are reporting increases in demand of 35 percent or more, Stermer says.
At Imani, many of those waiting in line are disabled and jobless. All ages and colors are represented, and English isn’t the only language being spoken. It’s a diverse group whose stoic members share at least one characteristic: They don’t have enough to eat.
Tina M. Holmes, who lives a couple of streets from Imani in the Old North End, says she underwent brain surgery for epilepsy in 2004. She has an 18-year-old daughter with spina bifida who lives in a foster home. Holmes receives $752 a month through a federal income-security program, along with food stamps and a rent subsidy. It’s not enough to get her through the month without visits to both Imani and the Food Shelf, Holmes says.
Standing nearby on a hot August afternoon, Crystal Rockwell says she’s here to “help get food for my family.” She also qualifies for federal disability payments due to what she describes as a comprehension disorder. “I can’t read or write,” explains Rockwell, who appears to be in her late thirties.
Not everyone in the Imani queue is impoverished because of physical or mental problems. Take Bud, a bearded man in his fifties who’s wearing a baseball cap and a white T-shirt with an NBC logo. Bud, who declines to give his full name, says he worked for a food broker business until it moved out of state last year. Although he holds a master’s degree in education, Bud says he can’t find another job and thus collects $425 a week in unemployment compensation. He and his wife, who also lost a job, must make $1200 in monthly mortgage payments on their Colchester home and are struggling to pay $1300 in back taxes, Bud says.
“Last year, my wife and I together made $100,000,” Bud notes. “Now I come here and to the Food Shelf so we can get by.”
Bud’s circumstances appear to confirm an observation offered by Gayle DiMasi, an outreach worker from the Vermont Family Network who’s on hand to inform Imani food recipients about counseling resources. “The way the economy is right now, a lot of vulnerable people are hurting,” DiMasi says. “But if we look honestly, many of us may see we’re only one situation away from being on this line ourselves.”
The Imani Center, founded in 1999, gives away food in the third week of the month because that’s when people who receive welfare checks on the first of the month tend to start running low on funds. Director Alan Robinson notes, however, that Imani uses food distribution as a means to an end. “Giving out food allows us to engage the community on health education and risk reduction,” Robinson says.
Managing the crowd at Imani, volunteers hand each recipient a short pink form on which they’re asked to write their name, address, family size and income range. The highest acceptable annual income is $40,100. No one is made to verify his or her neediness. “We don’t have any kind of restriction on who gets served,” Robinson says. “It’s an honor system.”
Doesn’t the organization worry about freeloaders? “We believe it’s humbling enough for someone to come here and ask for assistance,” Robinson replies. “In my gut, I’d say 99 percent of the people who come to us are genuinely in need.”
The Food Shelf maintains a more rigorous system. It limits pickups to once a month for those who have a home of their own, twice a month for those living in shelters and three times a month for people living on the street. Income eligibility is checked in accordance with U.S. guidelines covering distribution of surplus commodities from federal warehouses. But no one seeking help gets turned away. “Even if people aren’t eligible, we’ll still give them food,” says Food Shelf development director Rachel Moss.
Stermer at the Food Bank in Barre refers to the possibility of Vermonters gaming the system as “the elephant in the room.” She acknowledges that “a few people do cheat,” but agrees with Robinson that the “humbling experience” of asking for food serves to discourage those who don’t truly need the assistance.
It may also discourage some of those who do. Robinson suggests that a number of Imani’s clients assume they won’t qualify for help from the Food Shelf or aren’t willing to ask for extra rations from that source.
More than food is available at these Burlington agencies. This Friday, Imani plans to distribute 240 back-to-school backpacks donated by Costco. A sign posted in the Food Shelf’s soup kitchen informs clients of a free clothing-repair service. Various items hanging on a rack are there for the taking.
Federal funding pays for much of the food distributed to Vermonters, but agencies around the state also rely heavily on donations from individuals, foundations, supermarkets, food manufacturers and farmers. At the Food Shelf, some 500 volunteers supplement the work of 12 paid staffers.
“We’re fortunate that so many Vermonters are so generous,” the Food Bank’s Stermer says. “If we were forced to eliminate our services, we’d be in a whole world of hurt.”
The spirit of generosity extends to some of those waiting outside Imani for their monthly allotment. Bud, the unemployed Colchester resident, says diabetes prevents him from eating some of the items in the Imani parcel. He donates those back to the Food Shelf. Tom Partlow, who’s been living in his pickup truck the past four months, says he won’t take anything that requires kitchen prep. “I’ll leave that for somebody who can use it,” Partlow says, adding that he intends to make a cash donation to Imani as soon as he gets his first disability check from the government.