NorthWest Family Foods, 1-24-2019

A volunteer at NorthWest Family Foods carts boxes of food between shelves during a food drop off in early 2019.

ST. ALBANS CITY – As the holiday season approaches and pandemic reliefs sunset, NorthWest Family Foods (NWFF) is expecting its St. Albans food shelf to see a greater demand in the coming weeks.

In the midst of a greater demand, the food shelf is also reacting to a newfound surge in COVID-19 in Vermont, leading the food shelf to reexamine the ways it serves Northwest Vermonters in need.

According to the food shelf’s coordinator Toni Auriemma, things at the food shelf quieted down during the early months of the pandemic.

During the first months of COVID-19, the number of households visiting the food shelf every day dropped from a typical 50 to around 20 or so. “We didn’t see a lot of people during the first wave,” Auriemma said.

Recently, however, the number of households using the St. Albans food shelf has started climbing again, coming ahead of a holiday season that typically sees NWFF at its busiest.

Auriemma said the food shelf, on an average day, now sees between 35 and 40 households. Monday, for example, saw 37 households tap the food shelf for help during the two-hour afternoon window the St. Albans food shelf was open.

“It’s definitely different from the last seven months,” Auriemma said.

As to why the food shelf saw use drop off and gradually build up, Auriemma could only speculate it might have something to do with the stimulus programs stood up in the first months of the pandemic slowly sunsetting and coming to an end.

It’s a fear hunger relief advocates have shared in the past. Earlier this year, leaders from Hunger Free Vermont and the Vermont Foodbank told the Messenger they feared hunger could surge as measures like expanded food stamp benefits or the Farmers to Families Food Box program wind down.

“We really have a concern about what winter will bring,” the Vermont Foodbank’s chief executive officer, John Sayles, told the Messenger in September.

This spring, a University of Vermont survey suggested food insecurity may have climbed 33 percent in the first months of the pandemic, growing to now impact a quarter of all Vermonters. The nonprofit Feeding America, citing U.S. Census data, suggests that number may be even higher at 49 percent.

Auriemma said she guessed programs, like the emergency food drops packing the Franklin County State Airport in Highgate in April and May, may have helped address the first wave of food insecurity following COVID-19’s arrival to Vermont and the subsequent shutdown ordered to control COVID-19’s spread.

Many of those programs, supported through federal orders from agencies like the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the larger $2 trillion federal CARES Act, are approaching their scheduled denouements at the end of the year. Already, some measures, like a state ban on utility disconnections, have expired.

For NWFF and the St. Albans food shelf, the timing could not be worse, with supports falling away just as food shelves typically see heavier use amid the financial stress of the holiday season and the onset of a Vermont winter.

While some federally-stood up programs have been extended past the coming winter, like the popular universal school meals expansion authorized under federal orders, there remains little hope for immediate relief in the form of a federal stimulus at the scale of another CARES Act.

“Now would be the time when we’d start to see people more in need,” Auriemma said. “This is interesting and, unfortunately, bad timing.”

Meanwhile, food shelves like NWFF are left to also adapt to both a surging pandemic and cooler weather making previous adjustments at the food shelf, like outdoor pickups near the food shelf’s bay door entrance, a challenge.

According to Auriemma, the food shelf is planning on a “deli-style” system inviting people “take a number” and wait in their ideally warm vehicle for their number to be called, allowing users into the food shelf for a pick-up one household at a time.

As COVID-19 surges in the Green Mountain State, however, Auriemma said the food shelf has held off on its planned pandemic revamp. “We’ve put it on hold because, with numbers rising, we’re too uncomfortable,” Auriemma said.

In the meantime, Auriemma said the food shelf remains open during their typical hours of noon to 2 p.m., with food distributed out of the food shelf’s bay doors.

“Things are very unclear,” Auriemma said. “We have to take it day by day.”

NorthWest Family Foods, 2016

A volunteer from Grunts Move Junk helps load boxes of donated food onto a truck bound for NorthWest Family Foods in 2016.

How can people help NWFF during the holiday season?

According to Auriemma, the food shelf is accepting donations of “all kinds of foods,” though there’s an acute demand at the moment for “Thanksgiving fixings” and food shelf staples like peanut butter and children’s snacks like fruit cups and granola bars.

The food shelf is also looking for cleaning products like paper towels and pet food.

“We’re trying to be a grocery store out of the bay doors,” Auriemma said.

The food shelf is also looking for monetary donations it can use to buy food and supplies, which, according to Auriemma, would be the easiest for the food shelf to use.

Those with questions about the food shelf or those who might need the food shelf’s help in the coming weeks can contact NWFF at (802) 527-7392, extension 106, or can look for information on the food shelf’s Facebook page at https://bit.ly/3kGxnFo.

The food shelf’s processes for accommodating an ongoing pandemic are likely to change as COVID-19 continues to circulate through Vermont and New England. Auriemma said NWFF’s Facebook page would be the best place for continued pandemic-related updates from the food shelf.

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