BURLINGTON -- As growing numbers of new refugees and immigrants flood into the greater Burlington area, the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf is seeing firsthand that hunger knows no borders. Many of Chittenden County's newest residents from overseas depend on the food pantry for their daily sustenance, and that increased need is taxing an agency already overburdened by record numbers of clients.
In recent years, the problem has been further exacerbated by language and cultural issues, particularly involving newcomers from Africa and the former Yugoslavia. With 315 new African refugees expected to move into the area this year, the food shelf plans to hire a temporary translator this week who is fluent in English, French, Swahili and possibly Maay-Maay to help them manage the influx.
Wanda Hines, the Food Shelf's executive director, explains that the part-time translator position is needed because cultural and language barriers have hampered their ability to adequately serve the needs of all their clients. She explains that the increased time demands of communicating with non-English speakers, including processing their paperwork and explaining the rules and procedures, have "noticeably influenced and impaired" the number of households the agency can serve each day. In the past, food-shelf clients usually had to wait no more than 15 minutes for assistance. Today, that delay can last as long as 40 minutes. The result has been a growing frustration and resentment among some English-speaking clients, who complain that refugee families are getting preferential treatment.
"The impact of the various refugee cultures is definitely changing the way we do business," Hines says. "They all have to understand that it's not about creating special privileges. It's about equal access for everyone."
The problems aren't just due to language differences but also to learned cultural behaviors, Hines explains. She says that some African and Bosnian families have a tendency to hoard large amounts of food on each visit, which results in not enough fresh bread or produce at the end of the day to meet the needs of all families who want them. Other immigrants, Hines suggests, seem to come in with a "sense of entitlement" about how much food they should be allowed to take home.
Moreover, many new arrivals from Africa are highly distrustful of canned goods, Hines explains; some even refer to them as "cancer." They'll sometimes take home more fresh fruits and vegetables than their family can consume, which is against the rules. As a result, the Food Shelf has had to cut back the hours when certain items, such as fresh bread, are available.
Such difficulties come at a time when the overall demand for emergency hunger-relief services has hit an all-time high, not only in Chittenden County but statewide. In the past four years, the demand for food stamps has increased by more than $10 million statewide, from $33 million four years ago to nearly $44 million today. It's now estimated that 55,000 people throughout Vermont, including 21,000 children, live in "food-insecure" households.
The African-languages translator will work at the Food Shelf for six months. After that, a Bosnian and Croatian translator will be brought aboard for six months to assist immigrants and refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Hines hopes the new translators will not only smooth the process of distributing food, but also open up new funding streams to support the Food Shelf's operations.