Burta Kelly, treasurer at Aunt Dot's Place food shelf in Essex

Burta Kelly, treasurer at Aunt Dot’s Place food shelf in Essex, holds up a frozen turkey last week. The food shelf opened in August and is expecting a steady increase in customers.

“Around the holidays we are doing fine, but last month I can tell you we had a week when we had two cans of soup on our shelves,” said Kelly Hughes, manager of the Milton Family Community Center’s food shelf last week.

“I was doing food pleas to the community. I was saying to myself, ‘I can’t do this again.’ How many times can you legitimately say, ‘Our shelves are empty, please help,’” she said.

In 2011-2012 MFCC served 221 families or just over 700 individuals, and in 2015-2016 it served nearly 330 families or 900 individuals. These numbers may appear low because multiple visits by individuals and families are not counted, Hughes said.   

The food shelf currently serves up to 150 people a month from Milton, Westford, Fairfax, Essex, Colchester, Georgia and even Burlington, and is run by 10 volunteers.

Hughes, who has been with MFCC for 10 years, said when there’s a higher need, the center does more community outreach and solicits donations.

“We are right now on a day-to-day, month-to-month situation with food donations here,” she said.

Nicole Whalen, director of communications and public affairs with the Vermont Foodbank, said there has been an overall increase in traffic to their 215 food partners, including food shelves, meal sites, schools, hospitals and housing sites over the last couple of months.

“Everyone is bracing for what that means,” she said.

Whalen said any potential cuts or shifting costs of federally funded programs to the state would result in an increase in traffic to food shelves.

“SNAP or 3SquaresVT is the most proven and effective way to help people who are facing hunger,” Whalen said. “Without that, there is no way that partner food shelves could meet the need. As it is, we are already working hard.”

Marcia Devino, president of the board of directors at the Colchester Community Food Shelf, said it had 15 new clients in October, which has steadily increased from four in June.

“I kept thinking it was going to get quieter,” Devino said.

She said the numbers for November will likely be higher. The Colchester shelf gets 90-95 visits a month and serves around 250 individuals.

“Obviously we would like to go out of business because nobody would need us anymore. But that’s not going happen. At least not in the near future,” she said. 

The Colchester food shelf only serves residents of Colchester and is run by about 50 volunteers. Devino said the CCFC’s financial donations just about match what it spends each month on items they need.

“We go buy the stuff that everyone takes,” she said. “We’ve never had to not open.”

Aunt Dot’s Place in Essex opened in August this year and had 72 visits in September and 96 in October. They have 107 registered clients, equal to about 341 individuals.

Burta Kelly, Aunt Dot Place’s treasurer, expects attendance to keep rising as more people hear about the shelf.

When asked about a potential increase in clients due to cuts in federal assistance, she said along with climate change and food prices rising, “it’s inevitable.”

“We’re hoping that as the need increases, the community support will be there,” Kelly said. “If we can’t rely on the U.S. government, we have to rely on ourselves.”

Kelly said although people are very generous during the holidays, the rest of the year can be tough.

“In the summer and spring, when kids are out of school, that’s when we’re using up all our resources,” she said. “The need doesn’t go away.”

Anita Guild volunteers registering new clients at the Heavenly Food Pantry in Essex Jct. She said the number of people the pantry serves has increased by about 10 percent over the last four to five years, and there has been a slight increase over the last couple months.

The food pantry opened in the First Congregational Church in 1998 and currently serves up to 75 families a month. On the days it’s open, it’s staffed by up to 35 volunteers.

Guild said the pantry always anticipates increasing needs and is currently looking for young volunteers.

“We’re looking to the future; we want to make sure we stay as vibrant as we are now,“ she said.

Kelly Hughes with the MFCC is always looking for ways to secure more donations year round and increase awareness of the community’s needs.

She said nobody knows better than the individual what his or her needs are, and it’s her goal to remove unnecessary obstacles from people getting food.

“If people are unable to get a stable diet, they’re not able to work, produce for their family or parent as effectively as they could with those supports,” she said.

And as for the growing number of clients coming into the food shelf?

“I’ve lived in Milton for over 30 years,” she said. “We seem to come through when people are in need.”