NEWPORT CITY – Many Vermonters are watching their wallets shrink as their living expenses climb out of control. That is certainly true in the Northeast Kingdom. Just ask the folks at Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA).
NEKCA officials say more and more people are asking for help.
Part of the reason for the increase is the high cost of fuel and individuals running out of food stamps before the end of the month.
A survey conducted last year revealed that 51 percent of food stamp recipients run out before the end of the month, 47 percent don’t have enough income to purchase food, and 23 percent of the people who need food stamps are not eligible.
In some cases, people use their food assistance, which comes in the form of an EBT/DEBT card, to buy heating fuel. When that happens, those individuals go to food shelves like the ones offered by NEKCA.
“We have a huge demand for food at the food shelf in Newport,” said Joe Patrissi, Executive Director for NEKCA. “We have hundreds of people who come in here every month.”
The number doubles during Thanksgiving.
Patrissi likes the idea of community gardens, community green houses and more opportunities to participate in growing food.
"That's the direction we have to go in," he said. "We have to do that."
But someone needs to take responsibility for those projects, which includes writing grants. There needs to be community participation.
Thanks to generous community support, last year NEKCA had close to $30,000 in donations for the food shelf. Patrissi spoke highly of Tod Pronto and Deveney Choquette from WMOO-FM who raised $8,000 to $10,000 last fall and the Azur family who donated meat. Other individuals donated money. Local grocery stores also donate food.
Sometimes the shelves run low.
Anyone under 185 percent federal poverty level is eligible for food stamps from the government, but NEKCA usually doesn’t turn anybody away.
“If people are hungry, they’re hungry,” said Patrissi. “A lot of disabled and elderly people come in as do families with children.”
NEKCA also helps people with heating assistance. Individuals are qualified for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as LIHEAP, if they have an income that is 150 percent above the poverty level; 200 percent for crisis fuel assistance. All residents of Coventry are eligible for some heating assistance, courtesy of the Coventry Town Foundation.
The need for assistance has grown tremendously over the past several years. One of the reasons, said Patrissi, is the cost of fuel.
“When the price of fuel keeps rising, it drives everything else,” he said. “If you have to pay more money to stay warm, then you have less money for food.”
The Northeast Kingdom, the region that has the highest unemployment rate in the state, has the largest population asking for assistance. The Northeast Kingdom also has the lowest medium income and the highest percentage of people on benefits. The reason, said Patrissi, is a lack of jobs. The other issue is a lack of education.
“If you don’t aspire to get some higher education, you’re not going to get a good paying job,” said Patrissi. “We have too many people here who don’t have high school diplomas.”
Those with a good education tend to leave the area.
A lack of transportation is another problem.
“You can’t go anywhere in the Kingdom without transportation,” said Patrissi. Those with transportation have to buy gas, insurance and maintain their vehicles. “There is public transportation in the Kingdom, but it doesn’t serve everybody’s needs.”
The solution, said Patrissi, is something needs to happen with fuel prices.
Patrissi and others are already thinking about next winter and talking about opening emergency heating shelters for those who don’t have the resources to pay for their heating fuel. Patrissi said many people try to get by on their own, it is just harder for some than others.
“The problem is it escalates faster than people have the ability to keep up with their income,” said Patrissi. “It’s scary when you think about the political environment on a national level. The president, in his budget, just recommended what’s basically a reduction in the LIHEAP program for this year. It’s a little more than what he recommended last year, but it wasn’t as much as what was appropriated the year before, which was at a level that everybody could kind of live with.”
he decision resulted in the state coming up with $6 million to meet the shortfall. Patrissi said the Human Services Department added another $352 million or so to the national budget because of increasing fuel prices.
“Our congressional delegation, who has been very good at advocating for us, will have to try to figure out how to get the federal appropriation up,” said Patrissi. “If they can’t, they will have to look at ways to handling the shortfall. The governor is committed to not have anybody freeze to death.”
NEKCA is short on staff to meet with clients. Patrissi said the Bufka Foundation presented NEKCA with a challenge that it would match $10,000 if NEKCA can raise $10,000 by May. However, it only has $3,000.