Gov’t shutdown squeezes food shelf

By Russell Jones

BRANDON — The Brandon Food Shelf, like all food shelves around the state, relies on community donations and volunteers to provide nutritional assistance to those in our area who need it. The Food Shelf works in conjunction with the Brandon Senior Citizens Center to make sure no one in the area goes hungry. Together, they serve close to 300 people a week.

“The older generation, they are very proud,” director Kathy Mathis said. “They won’t ask for food, but if I have the volunteers tell them, ‘I was told to bring this to you,’ they will take it because they don’t want the volunteer to get in trouble.”

Mathis uses a network of volunteers, friends, and family of those who need assistance to find out who needs what and then makes sure someone gets it to them.

With resources from the food shelf, the programs serve a free community lunch every Friday.

“It’s just served family style, and good will offerings are accepted,” Mathis said. “The seniors, they enjoy the food, but it’s mostly about socializing for them. They spend so much time alone that it’s a real treat for them to get out and talk with everyone.”

Mathis said the seniors also take food home with them after the lunch. She sells to-go containers for 50 cents, and says some of them really take advantage of that, which she encourages.

“I have one guy who buys 10 to-go meals every week,” Mathis said.

Mathis said they have seen an in-flux of people into the food shelf lately due to the longest federal government shutdown in history. The Brandon Food Shelf saw at least three first-time visitors just in the last week, she said.

The Vermont Department for Children and Families, known as DCF, runs the nutrition assistance program for the state, called 3SquaresVT. In a recent press release it said the shutdown would impact its program. Food shelf staff sent out benefits for February early and are working to process new applications.

“DCF is committed to working with our federal and community partners to ensure 3SquaresVT recipients and new applicants get their February benefits,” said DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz. “We urge everyone who needs to take action to do so immediately. We remind everyone that these benefits will be for the entire month of February, so they’ll need to budget accordingly.”

The federal government shutdown has now been lifted, at least temporarily, while leaders in Washington try to work out a deal, but it is unclear how this will affect nutrition assistance programs. A backlog will likely keep government programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from functioning normally for a short while. A looming deadline of another shutdown on Feb. 15 could see people having to relive the last month over again.

“If the shutdown continues, the federal government will not have enough funds to issue SNAP benefits in March and beyond,” said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont. “DCF and the legislature have begun investigating what the state government could do to support 3SquaresVT participants should the federal shutdown continue into March.”

The government shutdown is not the only immediate cause of concern for some recipients of the benefits.

“We haven’t seen any in Brandon, but there have been several reports all over the state, and the country, of SNAP benefits being stolen,” Mathis said.

Benefits for SNAP, which used to be called Food Stamps, are disbursed through electronic debit cards.

An email from DCF recently warned recipients to beware that reports have surfaced of a bank in California withdrawing funds from SNAP debit cards. DCF officials cautioned cardholders to check their balances and change their pin numbers.

Without help from the government, the food shelves depend even more on community support. The need for food shelf services has grown, Mathis said.

“It’s an epidemic,” she said. “I’ve done this a long time and I think it is worse now than it has ever been.”

Hannaford supermarket helps by donating nearly 800 pounds of day-old food a month to the Brandon Food Shelf. Mathis and a rotating list of volunteers pick it up each morning. After weighing the food and recording the temperatures to make sure it’s safe to serve, they then deliver it to various people around town who, in turn, send it out in smaller bundles to people who need the food.

“Hannaford gives us meat and dairy and deli,” said Mathis. “Perishable items which the people really need.”

The Brandon Food Shelf and Senior Center also team up to do a Community Brunch every third Thursday followed by Bingo, which is sponsored by the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging. They also do a dinner once a month that is usually sponsored by a local business and costs $8 for a meal as well as providing whole ham Easter baskets to around 200 area residents.

The Brandon Food Shelf and the Senior Center could always use more help. Whether residents would like to volunteer time, offer monetary help, or drop off non-perishable foods, Mathis said the organization needs all it can get. Donations can be dropped off at the senior center on Route 73 in Brandon.“We really need peanut butter and soups this time of year,” she said. “Or combine items to make a meal, like canned tuna and mayo or pasta and sauce. Some of these folks are having to chose between heating or eating.”

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