Two in five Vermonters are experiencing food insecurity, reported Hunger Free Vermont in a recent virtual briefing on the hunger in the state.
The federal government defines food insecurity as households being, at times, unable to acquire adequate food for one or more household members because they have insufficient money and other resources for food (see sidebar).
Nationally, 12.8% of all U.S. households were food insecure in 2022, up from 10.2% in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Among households with children, more than 17% - one of every six - were food insecure at some point in 2022.
"People living with low incomes in our state have faced an incredible cascade of crises over these last three years," said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, a nonprofit working on these issues.
"We have a housing crisis, we have the second highest rate of homelessness in the country, and substance use disorder is shattering so many people's lives," she said.
"We've experienced incredible inflation over the last year or so, and then, of course, the flooding this summer and climate change overall is dramatically affecting how we live and where we can live in our state," Horton added.
"All of those cascading crises are leading to food insecurity and hunger, which is also dramatically on the rise," she continued.
"When we aren't making sure that all basic needs are being met for all of Vermont's households, the result is always going to be food insecurity and hunger, because food is the flexible part of everyone's basic-needs budget," Horton said. "When they can't meet their basic needs, people fill in gaps by pulling from their food budgets."
Leaving federal dollars on the table
The USDA provides food assistance funding to states through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In Vermont, SNAP funding is channeled to eligible Vermonters through the state's 3SquaresVT program.
The average monthly benefit of $317 is generally provided on a debit card (EBT) and is accepted at most grocery stores and many farmers' markets.
More than 70,000 Vermonters receive these benefits, according to Hunger Free Vermont, including more than 21,000 children and 17,000 people over the age of 60.
Of Windham County residents, 13% used the 3SquaresVT benefit in May, the most recent data for SNAP benefit usage, according to data published by Tableau Public.
The data also show that half of eligible Vermonters are not receiving the 3SquaresVT benefit, leaving millions of federal dollars on the table rather than circulating in the local economy.
Reasons for this low participation rate include the stigma about receiving what used to be called "food stamps," lack of knowledge of the program, and the need for assistance in navigating what can be a complicated application process.
During the pandemic, the federal government provided additional funding - emergency allotments (EAs) - to boost states' SNAP benefits. In Vermont during this time, the average monthly 3SquaresVT benefit was $400 per household.
"These EAs and other temporary policies helped to ensure that food insecurity rates did not meaningfully increase overall in 2020 or 2021 compared to 2019," according to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). "These relief efforts also contributed to food insecurity reaching a two-decade low for families with children in 2021," CBPP reports.
With the discontinuation of the EAs in March 2023, "folks are seeing food prices go up and their average monthly benefits go down," said Teddy Waszazak, policy leader for Hunger Free Vemont. "Vermonters have fewer dollars to work with, and those dollars can't be stretched as far as they used to be."
Working for systemic change
In its effort "to end the injustice of hunger for everyone" in Vermont, Hunger Free Vermont advocates for permanent systemic change. It led the Universal School Meals Campaign to provide every public school student in Vermont with daily access to breakfast and lunch.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government eliminated all eligibility requirements for the school meals program, thus ensuring that all Vermont children attending public schools could receive free meals. When that federal money ended last year, the state Legislature allocated state funds to continue the school meals.
The program became permanent in June when Gov. Phil Scott allowed the Universal School Meals bill to become law without his signature.
Dubbed "Give 3SquaresVT a Boost!," Hunger Free Vermont's 2024 policy agenda includes three priorities for advocacy:
1. Exempting community college students from the federal "work for food" rule, which requires students to work an average of 20 hours per week to receive the benefit.
2. Implementing a state program to allow 3SquaresVT benefits to be used in Vermont restaurants.
3. Raising the minimum 3SquaresVT monthly benefit by changing the formula upon which it is based.
"Ending hunger in Vermont will only happen when low-income Vermonters can meet all of their basic needs at the same time," said Horton in the briefing.
"And this work has already begun," she said, citing the universal school meals program, the expansion of the state earned income tax credit, the Legislature's creation of the strongest state child tax credit in the country, historic investment in child care and housing, and what she characterized as unprecedented funding for the Vermont Foodbank in the last year's state budget.
Food pantries are maxed out
"People are suffering from hunger right now, and policy fixes take time," Horton said. "Right now we have got to get up underneath our emergency and charitable food system. State funding for the Vermont Foodbank needs to be continued because our food pantry network in Vermont is beyond maxed out," she said.
The Vermont Foodbank provides about 12 million pounds of food annually through a network of more than 300 community partners - food shelves, meal sites, senior centers, after-school programs, schools, and hospitals.
Last year, the state allocated $3 million to the Vermont Foodbank. This year, the Foodbank is requesting $5 million in response to a "huge increase in need for food," said Carrie Stahler, its government and public affairs officer.
"The Foodbank and our network partners are the backstop for our neighbors who are making difficult decisions about how to use their limited dollars," she said.
In Windham County, the Foodbank has close to 100 network partners of varying sizes, according to Zach Hebert, associate manager for community engagement for the Foodbank's southern region.
"That number doesn't paint a fully accurate picture of the activity happening in the area," Hebert said, because many other organizations are doing charitable food work but are not network partners and, therefore, not tracked.
'There's no sign of slowing'
The Putney Foodshelf, a network partner of the Vermont Foodbank, has seen an increase in the need for food locally. People made 5,572 visits between July 2022 and June 2023.
"I thought our numbers would drop down after the pandemic, and they did briefly," said Hannah Pick, executive director. "But they have been increasing for over a year now. We served 184 households two weeks ago. I've never seen our numbers as high as they are right now, and there's no sign of slowing down."
Acknowledging the stigma associated with food insecurity, Pick said the food shelf models itself on a grocery store, which gives shoppers autonomy in their shopping experience.
"We work so hard to create a sense of dignity," said Pick. "We just want to normalize the experience."
Foodworks, a food shelf in Brattleboro run by Groundworks Collaborative, also reports an increased need locally. Between July 2022 and June 2023, Foodworks served 4,087 individuals, including 1,099 children. This is up from 3,552 individuals served the previous year.
"Every day we hear from shoppers about how high costs across the board force them to make difficult decisions," said Foodwords Director Andrew Courtney.
"For many in our community, after paying rent or mortgage, transportation costs, and medical bills, there are insufficient resources to meet their household's food needs," he said. "This problem seems to acutely impact senior citizens in our community living on fixed incomes."
The Windham Regional Hunger Council is a network of individuals and organizations working on hunger issues regionally. Through monthly meetings, council members collaborate and share information to strengthen each others' work.
"Our goal is to maximize services, not duplicate them," said Trisha Paradis, the council's co-chair and executive director of the Springfield Family Center (SFC).
SFC works to connect families to charitable food resources in Springfield, where one in three residents struggles with food insecurity.
Paradis has seen an increase in need since before the pandemic, when the agency distributed 18 meals a day.
"Now I'm serving 60-100 meals a day," she said. "We are in more of a food crisis now than we ever were close to being before Covid," she said.
Given the grim statistics, where does she find hope?
"I find hope in the people that we work with every day," Paradis said. "In the network of organizations, in the people in the community who want to help."
She finds hope "in the organizations and businesses that are willing to put themselves out and support the work that we do in that community."
"Those are the things that put a shining light at the end of the tunnel," Paradis said.
This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.