Donations of fresh fruit and vegetables are arriving at the Montpelier Food Pantry as fast as volunteers can unpack them (and disappearing almost as quickly). Shelves of canned goods, bread, pasta, and cereal can also be fully stocked one day and look empty the next. Inflation has been hard on the family budget, but donations from the Vermont Foodbank, local businesses, and individuals help to keep the pantry shelves filled and refilled. Jaime Bedard, executive director of the Pantry, says that no one, at this time, is asked to prove eligibility or limit their quantities, although signs remind patrons to “remember the needs of others.”
Food Resources in Vermont
Food pantries are just one of the resources offered to Vermonters struggling with food insecurity. School lunches and breakfasts will be available to Vermont students, regardless of income, through the 2022–2023 school year, and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) provides mothers and children with nutritious foods. Then there’s the whimsically named Veggie Van Go, a mobile food distribution program run by some schools and hospitals.
Churches and other organizations offer on-site or pick-up community meals throughout the state. To support Vermonters over 60, Meals on Wheels delivers five days a week, and the Community Supplemental Food program will deliver boxes of nutritious food to older Vermonters on a monthly basis. The Agewell organization makes it possible for seniors to dine at participating restaurants for a five-dollar donation.
Everybody Eats was established during the pandemic. Through this program, restaurants are paid to distribute meals to eligible Vermonters (pick-up or delivery) with 10% of the ingredients coming from local sources. Although this plan was designed to ease the financial pain of COVID, it will continue until October 1, 2022.
The single most important resource for those experiencing food insecurity is the federally funded SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The program replaced the food stamp arrangement with debit cards and provides eligible Vermonters with extra money for allowed grocery store purchases. In Vermont, we call it “3SquaresVT.”
It seems that Vermonters are working hard to keep our communities hunger free although the term “food insecurity” replaced the word “hunger” in most studies about two decades ago. It was deemed a more precise and measurable term.
According to Leslie Wisdom, Vermont’s director of Food and Nutrition, food insecurity indicates that a family is “at risk.” They may not know if there will be enough money to cover all the bills at the end of the month to pay for food as well as other basic necessities. These families are especially vulnerable to the economic upset that comes with a pandemic or rising inflation.
How do we know who’s experiencing food insecurity? Surveys are distributed to those whose income indicates that they may be struggling, and organizations such as Hunger Free Vermont work to help Vermonters access the resources available.
But all the resources in the world are useless if people don’t know about them, don’t know how to use them, or refuse them.
Getting Resources to People
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives Vermont high marks for the percentage of eligible Vermonters who participate in SNAP. One 2017 study ranked Vermont third in the nation and estimated that 92% of those eligible are receiving those benefits. But these are estimates, and local surveys don’t always agree. A University of Vermont study for a similar time period found that only 45% of eligible Vermonters were receiving SNAP funds, and that dropped to 44% for those over 60.
A study completed in April 2020 found that food insecurity increased from 18.3% to 24.6% during the pandemic; but at that time, less than 30% of those entitled to food programs were using those programs.
The State Outreach Plan for 2022 uses a variety of strategies to find and aid eligible Vermonters who aren’t getting help, including door-to-door visits, phone contact, and brochures distributed to churches, libraries, and housing for low-income families. Aletha Cross, a food and nutrition administrator for the state, notes that Vermont outreach work benefits from close connection between state administrators and community partners. She sees an openness on both sides to new ideas.
Why do people refuse help when they need it? Some individuals simply may not be aware of what’s available. This can be especially true for those who never needed it before. In addition, there’s always been a stigma attached to asking for assistance, the fear that “people will know.” Paperwork might be an obstacle. It may seem too confusing or the family fears getting involved with government bureaucracy. Lack of transportation, internet service, or even phone service can also hinder access in largely rural Vermont.
Outreach work, like other programs, is one more indication that, if hunger may sometimes be a reality in Vermont, it’s not easily accepted. Perhaps we would agree with Adlai Stevenson who said back in 1952, “A hungry man is not a free man.”
Universal School Meals Act of 2022–23
The Universal School Meals Act provides meals at school for Vermont students regardless of income during the 2022–2023 school year. The Montpelier Roxbury School District will be sending out information about applying for this benefit along with other back-to-school information. Parents may check in with other districts to learn more about the application process.