Home Uncategorized Health Care Share: Taking a Bite out of Hunger

Health Care Share: Taking a Bite out of Hunger

A VYCC food shipment arrives in Berlin. Photo courtesy of VYCC.
A VYCC food shipment arrives in Berlin. Photo courtesy of VYCC.

by C.B. Hall

Feeding the hungry is a challenge that a society can confront, or brush aside, in many ways—from free meals in church basements to welfare-state social democracy to leaving the destitute to beg in the streets. In partnership with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC), the Central Vermont Medical Center (CVMC) has for the last three years been addressing the problem with a novel approach that goes beyond nutritional relief to serve other social goals as well. Under the two organizations’ Health Care Share program, the Berlin hospital is identifying local families unable to obtain fresh, nutritious food, who then receive weekly deliveries of fresh vegetables from the VYCC’s farm in Richmond.

The program springs from a simple recognition of the problem’s scope and context. Vermont is the ninth-hungriest state in the union, a VYCC brochure states, “yet, Vermont ranks first in its commitment to eating locally grown food.”

Health Care Share has treated those two factors as more than a passing coincidence.The local origin of the food involved is central to the program. The VYCC brings young people aged 18 to 24 to its farm, according to the organization’s brochure, “to learn sustainable agricultural skills for a changing economy and climate. … Organic farming practices, food systems, nutrition and workforce readiness are all areas of focus.”

About 300 families received the 26-plus tons of food that the VYCC produced for the program in 2013, said VYCC development coordinator Melissa Katz. She expected “a substantial increase” in the volume this year. Each recipient household receives 12 pounds of produce a week during the growing season, as well as three fall deliveries. Chicken is delivered twice a season. The deliveries include recipes and other instructive information on the sometimes-unfamiliar foods.

The food itself is paid for by donors, including corporations, foundations, CVMC, and its employees. “CVMC has a great supportive employee base that supports us both personally and through really amazing fundraising events,” Katz said.

In addition to CVMC, both Fletcher Allen Medical Center and the Plainfield Health Center participate in the program with VYCC.

CVMC’s distribution takes place at the institution’s clinics in Barre, Northfield and Waterbury, and at the hospital itself. Food picked in Richmond on Wednesday gets to the distribution points on Thursdays for pick-up by the participating families. Susan Kruthers, CVMC’s vice president for community relations and development, told The Bridge that the food is currently going to 150 local families. CVMC identifies the patient and employee families in need, she said.

The need to provide for families of the hospital’s own workers, even as better-off employees are donating to the program, underscores the conundrum of the hunger problem in the state—in a society in which, by some measures at least, the gap between haves and have-nots is becoming a chasm.

“These are entry-level positions. These are people who earn minimum wage or slightly above, and if you have a family of two children . . .” CVMC chief operating officer Nancy Lothian said of hospital employees who receive the deliveries. “Yeah, it does sound sobering, but if you look under the sheets at any organization that has entry-level employees, the situation would be the same. It’s generally driven by the number of folks in the family.”

“We’re really working within a very complicated and sometimes unfair food system and economic system,” Katz said. “It’s not the systemic change we want to see eventually, but we’re really creating a new food system here, and we’ve seen really great results.”

Families in need don’t easily reach the decision to accept charity—which indicates how much the food means to them when they do accept it. “I personally have spoken with each and every participant and they are so thankful for this program,” Katz said. “One woman has Lyme disease, which has caused her to become allergic to ingredients very common in packaged foods like palm oil, and is so thankful for fresh veggies that she can incorporate into her limited diet.”

Even foodstuffs left behind for whatever reason at distribution points “are going to good use at a free community meal on Fridays at the St. Augustine Church in Montpelier,” Katz noted.

The program will not eradicate hunger in Washington County, far less Vermont, but within its context Health Care Share has achieved success, taking the edge off much misfortune—with a ripple effect of positive consequences for the VYCC workers’ education, the state’s self-sufficiency, and the promotion of sustainable agriculture.