MICHELLE MONROE, St. Albans Messenger
ST. ALBANS — Helping Hands boxes have once again appeared at Hannaford grocery stores around the region.
The boxes, which sell for $10 each, are donated to local food shelves. In St. Albans, the boxes go to the NorthWest Family Foods shelf operated by Franklin-Grand Isle Community Action (FGICA).
“The boxes are more and more critical every year,” said FGICA director Robert Ostermeyer. This year, the sale of the boxes is beginning just as a temporary increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps, expires on Nov. 1. Most families will lose about $30 per month in SNAP benefits, according to Ostermeyer.
In the past year, NorthWest Family Foods saw 4,000 visits from 1,500 households at its St. Albans location alone. That doesn’t include food distributed at satellite food shelves in Richford, Grand Isle and Alburgh.
Each time a family visits the food shelf, it receives three days of food for each family member. With food in hand, families are then able to use scarce funds on other necessities such as rent, transportation to work, and utilities, explained Ostermeyer. “For every bag of food that walks out of here, that’s $20 to $40 that family’s have in their pocket,” he said.
The past three months have seen a 20 percent increase in the number of visits to the food shelf over last year, with 1,100 households served from the St. Albans location, according to Ostermeyer.
“The recession is still very difficult for people,” said Ostermeyer. “Jobs have not materialized. Costs increase.”
At the same time, traditional suppliers of food to food shelves are providing less food. Donations from the federal The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) have dropped markedly, from 100,000 pounds in 2011 in Vermont to 20,000 pounds in 2012 and 2013, explained Ostermeyer.
Food producers and retailers have also become more skilled at predicting sales, leading to less surplus that is then donated to food shelves, he said.
When the Helping Hands program, then called Fund a Feast, started in 2009 the donated food was a supplement to what NorthWest Family Food received from other sources. Now the situation is reversed.
The more than 4,000 pounds of food donated through the program last year were still being distributed throughout the summer and into the fall, according to Ostermeyer.
“We wouldn’t have a food shelf if it wasn’t for Hannaford,” said Ostermeyer.
For the past three years, the St. Albans store has sold more boxes than any other Hannaford store, securing $3,500 in cash for the food shelf.
This year is likely to prove more challenging. The store is being remodeled, with new fixtures being put in place each night and merchandise being moved each day. That includes the Helping Hands boxes, which have traditionally been located in a large display at the entrance.
“I feel confident the community and businesses will come together again this year,” said store manager Dana Rocheleau.
Last year, the community donated more 4,800 Helping Hands boxes with half of the boxes were purchased by store customers and half by local businesses, churches, community groups and schools
The boxes contain staple foods used by food shelves, including pasta, cereal, canned goods and peanut butter. The total retail value of the food in the box is $11.88. “We’re taking a little hit there, but obviously we want to do it for the community,” said Rocheleau.
Hannaford will be giving a $2,500 gift certificate to the food shelf whose sponsoring store sells the most boxes. There are 187 Hannaford stores divided into 14 districts. The store in each district selling the most boxes earns a $1,000 gift certificate for their local food shelf. The company is also offering a $1,000 gift certificate for the store in each district with the biggest improvement over the previous year’s sales.