BRATTLEBORO—It may be January, but the people who run the various agencies dealing with hunger in Windham County are already thinking about summer.
At the Hunger Council of Windham County’s monthly meeting on Jan. 15 at the Marlboro College Graduate Center, plans were afoot to find more ways to get food to children who rely on summer food programs.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) served 43,061 meals from mid-June through August at sites in Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Grafton, Putney, Townshend, Westminster, and Wilmington. Many sites served both breakfast and lunch.
Brattleboro had the largest program, which was overseen by the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union for the first time. Café Services, food service provider for the Brattleboro Town Schools, provided the meals.
No paperwork, registration, or proof of residence is required for participation in the program. Meals are open and free to all kids 18 and younger.
Kira Sawyer-Hartigan, the Brattleboro program coordinator, said 800 youths received meals last summer, an increase of 100 over the enrollment of the previous year.
In all, the 17,526 meals and snacks served at the Brattleboro meal sites represent a slight decrease, Sawyer-Hartigan said, despite there being more meal sites around Brattleboro.
She said the biggest challenge for the summer program is finding enough volunteers to serve the food, and getting the word out about the program.
Local food is also part of the menu, Sawyer-Hartigan said, with many of the sites having some kind of vegetable garden maintained with the help of volunteers and the children in the program. She said she hopes this element of the program can expand.
But while Brattleboro served about 18,000 meals, there were 25,783 meals served in rural Windham County. That’s up from 20,597 in 2012.
Derrick Lambert, a child nutrition advocate with Hunger Free Vermont, said the towns outside of Brattleboro have seen a greater need for the summer meals program, but it is difficult to get food out to those who need it.
One big problem in the outlying towns involves transportation. Pat Haine of the Guilford Food Pantry said that group provided 1,300 meals last summer, but many families had difficulty getting to the sites where food was offered and that she often had to deliver food to those who needed it.
Christine Dyke of the Townshend Food Pantry agreed, saying that some families couldn’t cover the cost of gasoline to get their children to her town’s summer programs, particularly children from Jamaica who also participate in Townshend’s offerings.
Lambert cited Halifax, Jamaica, and Wardsboro as three towns that are eligible for summer food programs but don’t have them.
Brookline, Dover, Dummerston, Londonderry, Marlboro, Newfane, Stratton, Vernon, and Windham don’t meet federal eligibility requirements.
Lambert seemed to think Dover and Marlboro could start programs, based on U.S. census data that would indicate enough families in need to qualify.
Changing face of hunger
Vermont, like many rural states, sees so many hunger problems because residents are hit with high energy costs, high housing costs, and high food costs, and families usually don’t earn enough money to cover all their needs.
Social workers often speak of the hierarchy of needs in low-income families.
First, the rent has to be paid. Then, the electricity and heat must be covered. Then, the cost of a car must be factored in, along with the expenses to keep it on the road — a necessity in a place with little public transportation. Then come medical expenses.
Finally, there’s food, which usually is the first — and easiest — thing to cut back on.
One in six Vermont households receives benefits from 3SquaresVT (Vermont’s name for the federal food stamp program). The majority are families with children.
However, in most cases, the benefits are too low to allow them to purchase nutritious food consistently, and those benefits got even smaller after cutbacks to the federal program reduced an average family of four’s benefits by $36 or more.
Cutbacks in federal heating assistance have increased the strain on low-income families even further.
According to data compiled by the state, more than 8,300 residents in Windham County participate in 3SquaresVT, 47 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, and one in five children in the county are food insecure, meaning that they lack access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources.
Susan Kuchinskas of the Putney FoodShelf said that the face of hunger is changing and that the average Vermonter doesn’t realize who is using food shelves, food stamps, or congregate meal programs to stretch their meager budgets. She said that many of her patrons have jobs yet can’t make ends meet.
Dyke said that while food shelves are important, food stamps are a much more efficient way to get food to those who need it.
The Hunger Council of Windham County, which was formed three years ago, seeks to raise awareness county-wide about hunger and food insecurity. It is comprised of 30 social-service providers, advocates, legislators, media representatives, and others involved in the issue of hunger.
Sue Graff, community investment director for the United Way of Windham County, said the council’s two main objectives for the coming year are to increase access to healthy food, and to reduce the amount of reluctance by those in need to participate in food assistance programs.