Fighting hunger in Windham County

New group seeks to share ideas, solutions to ease effects of poverty

BRATTLEBORO — A new group has formed to address the growing problem of hunger, especially among children, in the region.

Organizers describe the Hunger Council of Windham County as a collaboration of front-line service providers, legislators, business leaders, nonprofits, leaders of the faith community, and advocates. The goal is to improve access to food programs and to break down the barriers that hinder access to services.

About 20 of the council's members met at the Marlboro College Graduate Center on Monday to map out strategies.

The effort is led by Hunger Free Vermont, formerly known as the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. The group changed its name at the beginning of this year to reflect its expanded work doing outreach and advocacy for Vermonters of all ages.

Hunger Free Vermont originally formed hunger councils in Washington and Chittenden counties, the population centers of the state. It has now expanded into Lamoille and Windham Counties, two areas in Vermont that have the most serious problems with poverty.

According to Hunger Free Vermont program director Dorigen Keeney, hunger in Vermont is often hidden. But in her presentation on the scope of hunger in the state, she described the many ways that the problem manifests itself.

She said that Vermont is ranked the ninth hungriest state in the nation, with 1 in 7 Vermonters of all ages living in “food insecure” households, defined as those whose family members have to skip meals, rely on assistance programs, or rely on poor0quality food.

“We're tied with Alabama for the biggest increase in hunger over the past decade,” she said.

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.

Keeney described a 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.

“Food is always the lowest priority, because that's the easiest thing to cut back on,” she said.

A high price to pay

Vermont ranks 11th in the nation for participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known nationally as SNAP and in Vermont as 3SquaresVT. More than 90,000 Vermonters - about 7,300 in Windham County alone - receive SNAP benefits, and that number has steadily increased over the past few years.

But those benefits still aren't adequate.

A family of four with a gross monthly income of $3,401 qualifies for 3SquaresVT. However, the average benefit for a family of four is just $38 a week, or about $1.80 per person, per meal.

Last November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 1 in 5 Vermont children experience hunger, and that more than 15,000 low-income children eat a free school breakfast on an average school day. In Windham County, 43 percent of grade school and high school students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Of the county's 33 schools, 15 have more than 50 percent of the student population eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Children pay the highest price in dealing with hunger, Keeney said. A child who doesn't get enough to eat is 90 percent more likely to be in poor health. The sicker a child gets, the faster malnutrition sets in, and with that comes a compromised immune system and even more illnesses.

Eventually, she said, long-term malnutrition in young children leads to stunted growth and developmental delays. Children so affected usually find themselves permanently trailing their peers in every behavioral and academic area as they grow older.

Help available

But there are remedies available, such as wider availability of school meal programs, as well as programs that serve meals to school-age children in the summer.

Rebecca O'Reilly of Hunger Free Vermont said that the 17 summer meal programs in Windham County go a long way toward dealing with childhood hunger during the school vacation months.

Fourteen of those sites are in Brattleboro, and local advocates say that the summer food programs deliver 3,000 meals a day during the eight weeks they are in operation.

Ricky Davidson, of the Brattleboro Boys' and Girls' Club, said that he is seeing more and more kids come to the club for the evening meals his program serves, even those who aren't members. Demand has gotten so high that the club now serves meals four evenings a week.

Increasing access to healthy food is a top priority. For example, the Brattleboro Farmers' Market sold $18,100 of food last summer to 3SquaresVT users. O'Reilly said that this amount was the highest of any farmers' market in the state, and praised the outreach that's been done to encourage the program.

Still, not every low-income family feels welcome at the Farmers Market, said Michelle Carr of the Brattleboro Housing Authority. Transportation is another problem, she said.

Richard Berkfield of Post Oil Solutions said that one way his organization has addressed this cultural divide was to bring the farmers' markets to the neighborhoods.

Post Oil organized a hybrid farmers' market/CSA at the Westgate Apartments and on Elliot Street. He said that the market at the Elliot Street Café sold more than $6,000 of produce, and is shooting for $20,000 in sales this season.

“We're doing as much as we can to fill the gap between the farmers, who want to get a fair price for their crop, and low-income families, who want to be able to afford their produce,” he said.

Organizers also cite the need to improve the quality of food available at food shelves.

Maurice Casey, director of the Vermont Foodbank, said that his organization is “giving three times the food we were giving out two years ago,” including more produce, protein, and dairy products to local food shelves.

The 21,000-square-foot depot that the Foodbank opened in Brattleboro in 2009 has been a big help, he said. With expanded freezer and refrigerator space, the Foodbank isable to handle more perishables and get them out to food shelves faster.

In terms of the existing federal programs, advocates seek a reduction in the paperwork associated with SNAP or school lunch programs, as well as better education and outreach to the people who need food assistance, but think they are not eligible to receive it.

Pat Burke of Southeast Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) said that she often hears from people who are eligible for benefits but who don't want to sign up for them because they feel that someone else needs them more than they do.

“It's amazing to hear that,” she said.

The council plans to meet four times a year to share ideas on hunger. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for May.

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