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Hunger in Vermont

Photo courtesy of Vermont Food Bank
Photo courtesy of Vermont Food Bank

by Ed Sutherland

Repeatedly ranked as one of the healthiest states, Vermont nonetheless finds itself in a twin battle, fighting poverty and its perpetual shadow, hunger. Today, 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson’s  War on Poverty began, the hungry constitute a double-digit percentage of Vermonters, and malnutrition remains a dark spot in the Green Mountain State.

Vermont hasn’t made much of a dent in the percentage of its residents living in poverty. In 1979, the state’s poverty rate was just under 12.1 percent. More than 30 years later, the figure stands at 11.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hunger in Vermont has risen 45 percent since 2000, according to Hunger Free Vermont. Numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2011-12 found that 13.2 percent of Vermonters are food-insecure—meaning, under the federal definition, persons having trouble obtaining nutritious food. Only Maine has a higher rate of food insecurity, according to federal figures.

Eight thousand residents of Washington County are getting help through 3SquaresVT, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or simply food stamps. Imagine everyone in Montpelier, population 8,000, getting food assistance and you’ll get the scope of the problem locally.

Likely one of the most startling figures comes from the Barre Town-based Vermont Foodbank. Working with Feeding America, which describes itself as the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity, the food bank recently announced that 25 percent of Vermonters use food shelves or meal services to feed themselves. John Sayles, the food bank’s CEO, confirmed to The Bridge that the number, while it seems high, is accurate. The finding is consistent with informal surveys his organization conducted recently, and its last formal four-year study was conducted before the impact of the Great Recession was felt. Through a network of 280 partners, the food bank distributes eight million pounds of food each year.

“Hunger is one of many issues. People are in distress,” he said in an interview.

He sees 3SquaresVT as the biggest key to fighting hunger, lifting many Vermont residents out of poverty. Although 80 percent of those qualified for 3Squares VT have signed up, seniors have a “much lower” sign-up rate.

One reason for that differential was put forward by Ellie Hayes of the Central Vermont Council on Aging: among the elderly there is a stigma about 3SquaresVT.

“There is a misconception that if you are approved for a benefit, you’re going to be taking food away from a child. I hear that a lot,” Hayes told Vermont Public Radio recently.

Although there is not one single silver bullet that will end hunger in Vermont, a livable income is the most important factor, according to Sayles. The recent “Hunger in America” study by the Vermont Foodbank and Feeding America found more than 70 percent of Vermont households forced to eat inexpensive, unhealthy food because of price. At $36 per week, the state’s 3SquaresVT program, compared to comparable programs in other states, ranks among programs with the lowest payments to needy families.

Marissa Parisi, Hunger in Vermont executive director, agrees with Sayles on the importance of better wages for Vermont workers.

“Vermonters also pay very high housing, transportation, and heating costs, which all compete with the family food budget,” she said. She saw 3SquaresVT and food access for children as important threads in a hunger safety net.

“The most important safety nets in Vermont are the federal child nutrition programs such as school meals, and the 3SquaresVT program. …  We have seen great expansion in school meals and were pleased to see Vermont continue the Heat & Eat program—in 3SquaresVT—which was cut in the [federal] farm bill.

“We think there is much more opportunity to utilize programs that feed low-income children in child care and in the summer. In the upcoming child nutrition reauthorization, we will work to promote expansion of programs serving children, and improved ease of use for the child care nutrition program,” Parisi said.

Toward that goal, Governor Peter Shumlin in September announced a program making school lunches free to all students in low-income areas, not just those who qualify. The program’s goal is twofold—reducing paperwork for schools and parents, and reducing the stigma for students.

“We know that you can’t learn if you’re hungry,” Shumlin told Barre City seventh-graders. Sixty-six percent of Barre City Elementary and Middle School students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Twenty-nine of 50 eligible Vermont schools are participating in the program, according to the governor’s office.

The latest hunger numbers, released September 3, indicate that “hard-working Vermonters continue to feel the pinch of a sluggish recovery,” Parisi stated in a news release. “Many people are finding their salaries don’t keep pace with the rising costs of housing, education and healthcare.”

Anore Horton, child nutrition advocacy manager for Hunger in Vermont, believes only a concerted effort will combat food insecurity.

“All of the services Vermonters use to keep themselves from falling off the food-security cliff are critical: school meals, 3SquaresVT, senior meal programs, food shelves—all work together to reduce what would otherwise be even more unacceptably high numbers of malnourished, food-insecure, and hungry children and families in our state,” she said.

While some are reticent to label Vermont a two-tiered society, signs of such a dichotomy abound. Although Vermont has championed both healthy lifestyles and equal access to health care, the poor are forced to eat inexpensive, unhealthy foods. Such behavior only fuels more trips to the doctor and increased medication. In a chicken-or-egg scenario, diabetes and high blood pressure factor in heavily for households struggling to put food on the table.

In addition, when it comes to one of Vermont’s biggest sources of income—tourism—hunger creates an embarrassing, if less-than-obvious, contrast. Whether visiting idyllic villages, touring the blaze of fall colors, or skiing our legendary slopes, tourists are handing their disposable cash to cashiers and wait staff who are likely to be among Vermont’s hungry.