Michelle Monroe, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — With the first sustained flurry of snowflakes arriving here on Friday, it’s not unexpected that two of the region’s largest charity drives also are underway.
Hannaford’s Helping Hands boxes, which provide needed staples to area food shelves are available for sale at the Highgate Commons supermarket, and Operation Happiness has begun signing up families for holiday gifts of food, books, toys and winter clothing.
Operation Happiness is working with Franklin-Grand Isle Community Action and its food shelf, Northwest Family Foods, to sign up families for holiday gifts. Volunteers from Operation Happiness are at the food shelf from 1 to 4 p.m. on weekdays when residents come in for food.
Starting on Monday, Nov.17, residents will be able to register for Operation Happiness on the phone. Last year, Operation Happiness helped 1,100 families in Franklin and Grand Isle counties.
Last year also was a good year for Helping Hands, with the community purchasing a record number of boxes – 5,195 – and for the fifth-year running winning a $3,500 Hannaford gift card that Northwest Family Foods again used to purchase additional food. In 2009, when the local store sold 1,900 boxes to first win the contest between Hannaford outlets regionally, about 5,000 meals were provided as a result.
“Last year was a banner year for the Hannaford’s Helping Hands program here in St. Albans, Northwest Family Foods received over 67,000 pounds of food,” said Robert Ostermeyer, executive director of community action. “The community support for Helping Hands is crucial to our efforts to provide folks in Franklin and Grand Isle counties with healthy, nutritious meals for their families while managing a tight budget.”
“We hope this coming year will be like last year,” said Walt Gaskill, of Helping Hands. Gaskill runs Northwest Family Foods.
The boxes retail for $10 each and contain slightly more than $10 worth of staple foods, such as cereal, pasta, pasta sauce, peanut butter and canned fruits and vegetables.
Demand at the food shelf is up about 25 percent this year, with 5,000 visits, 1,000 more than the year before, according to Ostermeyer. “Partly this is the result of our increased outreach to the community, but it is also due to the fact that the economic recovery has not produced the benefits to low income families here that other recoveries have in the past,” he said.
In addition to providing food at its St. Albans office, Northwest Family Foods operates satellite shelves in Richford and in Grand Isle County. Families from every part of Franklin County come to the food shelf.
Northwest Family Foods gave out 180,000 pounds of food this past year, with more than a third coming from the Helping Hands boxes, according to Ostermeyer.
“Last winter was hard,” said Gaskill, with the bitter cold driving up heating bills and cutting into family’s food budgets.
Every family who comes in gets a Helping Hands box, as well as eggs, bread, cereals and canned goods. During the summer and fall, the food shelf also has fresh vegetables donated by community members. Recently Hannaford has begun donating meat to Northwest Family Foods.
“Meat is a new thing for us,” said food shelf worker Nichole Lussier about its addition to the pantry, adding, “People are really happy about that.”
Local donations have become more crucial as the amount of food provided by the federal government and large corporations has declined.
Food companies are better at predicting demand for their products and marketing, explained Ostermeyer, leaving them with fewer leftovers to donate. In addition, the rise of dollar stores has created a secondary market for unsold food that used to be donated.
Another area grocery store, Food City, located on Lake Street in The Switchyard shopping center, also has stepped up to help, creating bags customers may purchase for $5 that contain canned soup and tuna, macaroni and cheese, and canned vegetables. Like the Helping Hands boxes the bags are donated to the food shelf.
The area’s third big charity drive, the Dept. of Children and Families’ Holiday Project typically gets underway around Thanksgiving, when the Christmas wishes of children in state custody or receiving state services are made available at area libraries. Last year, more than 400 children received donated gifts delivered to St. Albans and other area libraries.
“It may appear unseemly to brag about your generosity, but the people in this town have a right to feel proud,” said Ostermeyer.