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Hunger in Central Vermont: Problem or Emergency?


an analysis by our Publisher Nat Frothingham

Vermont Public Radio ran a breaking news story on September 27 about a sharp spike in the demand for food at the Montpelier Food Pantry.

The story suggested a dramatic increase in the numbers of people visiting the capital city’s food pantry from a pretty steady number of 200 people a month this past spring to an average high of something close to 600 people or more per month this summer — a tripling of demand.

Anyone concerned about hunger locally had to ask — and ask searchingly — “What’s going on here.”

And note — since January 20 and the advent of the Trump administration we’ve heard a steady drumbeat of news about possible cuts to fuel assistance, tighter “food stamp” guidelines, cuts to college loan money, to say nothing about fears that millions of American could lose their government-assisted health insurance coverage.

You might think it relatively simple to come up with a number or numbers to precisely describe something as essential as hunger. There is either a hunger problem or not and if there is a hunger problem, produce a number.

OK, numbers.

In a phone conversation with Nicole Whalen, Director of Communications at the (statewide) Vermont Food Bank, she said that over the past six years the Food Bank has increased its overall food distribution from 6 million to 12 million pounds.

Last year, the Food Bank raised more than $5.5 million from October, 2016, to September, 2017. “The need has always been greater than we can meet. We always distribute what we can,” she said.

The Food Bank currently distributes to 215 network partners across Vermont including food shelves and meal sites. The Food Bank both collects donated food from a variety of sources and purchases food as well. And the food that’s donated comes from such large food companies as Hannaford, Shaw’s, Price Chopper, and C&S Grocery. And don’t forget gleaning. And don’t forget what restaurants contribute. The list of food donations is large.

“We end up purchasing a lot of fruit, millions of pounds of fruit and produce. We try to get what we can donated. Then we purchase what we need,” she said.

But back to the numbers. Whalen said, “It’s hard to really say when you look at the numbers what the whole picture is. Food insecurity rates have slightly declined this year.” But Whalen added. “Food insecurity rates have not gone down to where they were before the recession.”

Kari Bradley, General Manager of the Hunger Mountain Food Coop in Montpelier talked about ways the Coop is responding to local hunger. Last year the Coop donated 27,000 pounds of food to Capstone, the welfare agency in Barre. The Coop is taking a nickel that used to be refunded for each customer reusable bag. Now that nickel goes to support the local Back Pack program, a Rotary-sponsored food outreach program to elementary school children in Montpelier who qualify.

The Coop’s low-income discount program serves 91 people today, down from a high of 180 people in 2014. Why the drop? Well, consider what you need to qualify for the discount program. You need to qualify for SNAP (the old food stamp program, called 3SquaresVT in Vermont), or WIC (Women, Infants & Children) and you need to be a Coop member. If fewer people are qualifying under new SNAP guidelines, that could account for the drop in numbers getting food from the Coop’s low-income discount program.

In what proved to be an enlightening phone call with Food Bank CEO John Sayles, he acknowledged the Vermont decline in unemployment, currently at 2.9 percent.

But that’s not the whole story. “Wages aren’t rising. But housing costs are rising. Working families are finding it hard to put the pieces together,” he said.

Food programs are one of those things that can offer relief to a working family’s budget when it’s under stress. “People are taking advantage of it because they are not making ends meet,” he said.

Then he added a critical statistic, “At least 30 percent of the people who are considered food insecure do not qualify for food stamps.” Perhaps they got a better job. But then, perhaps they lost some other benefit. Or they have a hospital bill. Or they had to fix a car. Or someone in their family needed financial help. Or someone is over 80 and living alone or without friends and struggling with dementia.

“So many families are $500 away from not making it,” he said. “We are seeing people taking advantage of the food system. That’s why it’s there. Each person who walks into a food shelf is a different story. The numbers don’t tell that story.”

Some of the other stories in play at the moment are these.

On November 15, Bethany Church will open a seasonal (winter only) shelter for 20 men in the church basement.

An up-to-date report from Rob Lehmert, who heads up the Montpelier Back Pack program to benefit qualified elementary school children and their families, was helping 35 children and their families when school ended last June. Now, 58 children are being help. An uptick of 67.7 percent.

And this from Diane Warwick, co-program manager for the Onion River Food Shelf, which serves Marshfield, Plainfield, and Cabot, “We’ve seen housing costs significantly rise in our area. It seems like more and more families are living together rather than branching off.”

And this from the Vermont Food Bank website, “Fifty-two percent of  Vermont residents report having to choose between paying for food and paying for housing, while 63 percent report having to choose between paying for food and paying utility bills.”

So you still want a number, you still want clarity? Sorry, or as Jaime Bedard of the Montpelier Food Shelf said, “Everyone is rushing around trying to feed people. It seems somehow that we are applying a bandaid instead of dealing with the bigger issues.”