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Group outlines options for people who need food

One Vermonter in five needs food. At a meeting of the Windham County Hunger Council, its members describe resources and efforts to connect the people who sorely need them

—During the monthly meeting of the Hunger Council of the Windham Region, a group that includes representatives from several dozen area food, fuel, and shelter resources, what strikes one about the people involved is their passion for the work and commitment to overcome its challenges.One big challenge is to get people to use the services that are available for them.Senior Solutions Outreach Specialist Thom Simmons brims with enthusiasm about his determination to increase the number of Windham County senior citizens participating in programs they’re entitled to use when they need some help buying groceries and paying for heating fuel.The fact is, 60 percent of them do not.“They’re leaving money on the table, and doing that is not a Vermont virtue,” Simmons says with a grin. “If it’s available, and you’re eligible, then why not?”He says the 100% Campaign, an initiative for everyone to be food and fuel secure, has taken off in Putney and was recently launched in the Chester/Andover area.Simmons has found that approaching folks about fuel help is a way to let them know food assistance is equally important. He’s also found that getting seniors to open the door to accepting fuel is a way to get them to think about accepting food.“For many people who are reluctant to access food benefits, talking to them about fuel benefits is a whole different world,” Simmons says. “It’s a kind of back-door entrance to talk about food security. It’s a way to avoid them saying, ‘I’m embarrassed to say we’re struggling with food,’ because there’s no embarrassment to be struggling with fuel.”3SquaresVT (known nationally as SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) helps eligible families put healthy food on the table. However, it is another offering that is sometimes difficult for folks to accept.“3Squares is a stigmatized program,” says Springfield Family Center Executive Director and Hunger Council Co-Chair Trisha Paradis. “Folks don’t want to take away from someone else.”Also, she says, “people feel overwhelmed by the process and answering questions they may not want to answer, sharing personal information they may feel reticent to share.”“This is not a program that takes away from anyone,” says Jenna O’Donnell, community engagement manager for Hunger Free Vermont. “It’s here for all of us.”

Framing the conversation

—While hunger is an issue year-round, as winter and the holidays approach people simply do pay more attention to it and are often willing to give more to support programs, says Hunger Free Vermont Program Communications Manager Sabina Parker.She and others ponder how to talk about hunger in the community to have the biggest impact.“How to make a compelling, heart-opening, pocketbook-opening story rather than something that makes people feel badly and pushes them away from the conversation?” wonders Sheila Humphreys of Food Connects.“We all have a stake in hunger,” says Parker, not discounting the privilege of some.The group also points out the fact that donations to the Vermont Foodbank and related nonprofits are generally greater from low-income folks than from those with higher incomes. They often come from Foodbank patrons themselves.Hannah Pick of the Putney Foodshelf believes that food should be spoken of as a resource that anyone can have and should be done in the “language of abundance.”That way, she says, folks know there really is plenty to go around and that organizations really want people to participate and avail themselves and their families of that abundance.The system, however, is a problem, providing stumbling blocks, like what many consider a rather off-putting application process.“Our phones are exploding for food and fuel [assistance],” says Simmons. “But even with the increase in calls, it’s not like we’re seeing an increase at the state level of approved applications.”Eligible recipients must fill out a profile for the state application to receive assistance.“People see a 15-page application and say, ‘No way,’” Simmons says. “And it falls apart.”“People feel violated in some way,” adds Paradis, speaking of the stigma around applying and how the complex process can alienate some from accessing services. “It’s a lot.”The ticket, says Simmons, is to “try to break the obstacle between when folks say, ‘yes, I’ll do it’ and doing it.”“My wish is that we can simplify that process and make it less cumbersome,” Paradis says. “How do we work together to change the way that’s done?”“I know this is a conversation that’s probably been happening for 30 years, [but] so many people aren’t getting the support they need because they don’t want to answer those personal questions or navigate those systems,” Paradis says, calling the paradox “the million-dollar question going forward.”

Coping with the pandemic and winter

—Roughly 1 in 5 people in Vermont are experiencing hunger. At certain points during the pandemic, that number grew as high as 1 in 3, says Parker.“While this improvement highlights the power of the federal assistance programs, there are still far too many people in our communities who are struggling to get the food they need,” she says.Parker notes that while the number of people experiencing hunger at specific points in time increased during the pandemic, other factors led to a significant decrease in overall hunger and poverty.Those measures included higher 3SquaresVT benefits, waivers that allow all schools to offer school meals to all students, federal stimulus checks, and innovative government, nonprofit, and community responses.“We can celebrate these accomplishments while pushing ahead for solutions that will end hunger in our schools and communities,” says Parker. “The time to enact permanent, structural solutions to hunger is now.”

Dealing with rising food, energy prices

—Parker said the emergency and charitable food system has stepped up over the past year to meet people’s immediate needs. Most food shelves and food pantries in the Windham region are “network partners” of the Vermont Foodbank, through which they can order food to provide to their shoppers.But she cautioned that “rising costs of fuel, food, and housing, paired with overall inflation and an uncertain General Assistance housing program, will lead to far too many of our neighbors experiencing hunger and homelessness as we move into a season that already historically has high hunger rates.”Meanwhile, funding for federal nutrition programs such as school meal programs, Meals on Wheels, and 3SquaresVT is always tenuous, with Parker and others expecting to see a “significant spike” in the coming weeks of families experiencing hunger.“Schools can’t provide meals for winter break this year, many schools are experiencing staffing shortages and burnout, and the shelter and charitable food system is experiencing increased need without an increase in resources,” she says.Parker strongly believes that it is “government’s responsibility and purpose to make sure our communities are at their strongest and working best for us all by guaranteeing that everyone has what they need to meet their most basic and critical needs.”Nonprofit and charitable organizations can advise and help, but she said they “cannot — and should not — be expected to solve these fundamental structural problems.”

Legislative help

—Teddy Waszazak of Hunger Free Vermont manages its Universal School Meals campaign — school breakfast and lunch available to every student, every day, now available through a U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver. The South Burlington–based nonprofit wants to be sure the program doesn’t get pulled back when the pandemic ends.During the summer and fall, members visited fairs, concerts, and other events, talking with people and collecting more than 600 supporter cards with a larger goal of collecting 10 cards from each House district.Supporter cards include statements from individuals about why they support Universal School Meals. The cards include those folks’ names, towns of residence, and contact information. During the legislative session, they are collected and given to each town’s representative.Supporter cards may also be distributed at Annual Town Meetings this year, or they can be signed online at universalschoolmealsvt.org.Hunger Free Vermont has also partnered with Food Connects in Windham County, one of many partnerships throughout the state, and its staff has testified before the state Legislature.“We’ve made a lot of good progress getting those folks to understand the interconnectedness of food and education,” says Waszazak, adding the group is advocating fiercely to get the Universal School Meals bill passed as soon as possible.That bill would include free breakfast and lunch for all students at all schools, an increase for local food purchasing, and increased support for schools.At the end of the last legislative session, a similar bill didn’t make it over the finish line and is stalled in the House Education Committee.Leadership at Hunger Free Vermont has decided to advocate for lawmakers to replace the bill’s text with “preferred legislative text” to save time when the Legislature returns Jan. 4.Waszazak also noted that President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill, which is still being debated and negotiated, now includes provisions that would make school meals cheaper in Vermont.Currently, if 40 percent of a school’s student population is at or below the poverty level, the federal government will pay the cost of school meals. The Build Back Better bill, in its current incarnation, would drop that threshold to 25 percent.“If that bill gets passed, the cost for school meals in Vermont would drastically reduce,” says Waszazak.

Refugee support

—The Community Asylum Seekers Project (CASP) has been doing the work of supporting refugees and new Americans for many years.While CASP was not able to meet with the Council this month, Zach Hebert of the Vermont Foodbank is coordinating with the Ethiopian Community Development Council, which has been working with local groups and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants to prepare for the Afghani families set to arrive in Windham County, starting Dec. 13.Hebert notes that 35 Afghani refugees are already settled in the state, most in temporary housing in northern Vermont. Fifty more are expected by the end of January. It is currently estimated that 225 families will resettle in the state.Finding housing and food is expected to be a long-term issue, with some logistical challenges.One is that for the short-term, refugees are expected to be staying at the School for International Training (SIT), which has an industrial kitchen but no individual kitchens.Planning is underway at Brattleboro’s Everyone Eats program to create “culturally affirming meals” for families, deploying the resources of local restaurants, which now are waiting to receive some native recipes. The Foodbank will freeze the meals and is also coordinating welcome boxes.Hebert welcomes brainstorming about how the community can provide creative food solutions for those who will be living at SIT, a process that “might prove to be an ongoing challenge.”Finding a permanent housing solution, says Hebert, “is going to be an uphill battle,” and if individuals or community organizations would like to help, they are encouraged to email ECDC Director Joe Wiah at jwiah@ecdcus.orgSome have suggested connecting with veteran service organizations to support any refugees who served with the American military.“I think we all have to work together to help facilitate a nice transition for folks and make sure they have access to the resources they need,” Paradis says.

Other anti-hunger resources

—Recent initiatives and resources for food and other services for people in need in and around Windham County include:• Springfield Family Center is hosting a basket raffle fundraiser to pay for Christmas meal boxes (nearly 70 families or 300 people have signed up for them) and keep the food shelf stocked.You can support the fundraiser by sponsoring a basket, buying tickets, and more. To do so, visit springfieldfamilycenter.com/basket-raffle-fundraiser. The event last year raised almost $3,900.• The Brattleboro and Putney winter farmers’ markets are both open throughout the winter and are offering a Crop Cash incentive, which matches up to $10 of 3SquaresVT to purchase fruit and vegetables. Brattleboro also has its own incentive coupon matching another $10. For more information, visit nofavt.org/cropcash.• Vermont 2-1-1 — Carmina Garciadealba, outreach coordinator of the state’s program to connect people with the services they need, notes the organization is seeing an increase in calls around food resources. A big part of Vermont 2-1-1’s work is hosting a hotline for any general social support, including resources such as housing, food, and medical support. Dial 211 or visit vermont211.org.• 3SquaresVT — If your household has lost pay or your child care expenses have increased, you could be eligible to receive a 3SquaresVT benefit or increase the benefit you already receive. Application help is available. For information, visit 3SquaresVT.org, email 3svt@vtfoodbank.org, call 1-855-855-6181, or text VFBSNAP to 85511.• The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) is a federal nutrition program offering free monthly nutrition information and nutritious food to income-eligible older adults. Visit vtfoodbank.org for information and to find a food shelf site.• Vermont WIC — a program for the health and nutrition of women, infants, and children — is open, and most services are being offered by phone appointment to align with social distancing efforts. The program has been temporarily expanded to add options for some hard-to-find items. Visit vtfoodbank.org or text VTWIC to 855-11 to apply.• If you are age 60 or older, learn more about picking up meals to go or having meals delivered to your home by calling 800-642-5119.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #642 (Wednesday, December 8, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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