Hunger in Vermont: it’s no game

Within the United States, one in eight people struggle with food insecurity. But in Vermont, that number climbs even higher, to one in four.

Food insecurity is defined as “the lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources,” according to Hunger Free Vermont’s website. And in a state as rural as Vermont, access to food can be difficult to get.

“[With] issues of access to that food — like you’re elderly, can’t drive, and live 10 miles from the grocery store — all of those things can be solved with resources: if you could take a taxi to the grocery store, or pay a friend to drive you,” said John Sayles, CEO of The Vermont Foodbank.

A recent survey by Hunger Free Vermont found that 20,400 children are dealing with the problem of food insecurity. The counties of Essex, Grand Isle and Orleans are all suffering from one out of three children dealing with food insecurity.

It isn’t just the children being affected by a lack of food. Around 87,000 adults throughout the state are enrolled in 3SquaresVT, the local offshoot of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program.

Chittenden County has the highest number of 3SquaresVT dependents in the state, with 15,432 enrolled in the program. Rutland County isn’t that far behind, with 10,772 enrolled.

But what is causing these problems with food insecurity? One of the largest reasons is the economy.
“People are not making a livable wage,” said Marcia Levison, the manager of the Richmond Food Shelf and Thrift Store. “That’s the biggest one. Also, people are on disability, and those people are not able to work. And then that further goes into having enough money to pay for rent, but not for food. Once again, it’s economics. Nobody really wants to use the food shelf; it’s hard for people to make that first step.”

In addition to the economy, access to food is also a large roadblock to receiving proper food.

“Access remains a big issue nationwide . . . people having access to healthy food,” said Rob Meehan, director of the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf. “Oftentimes, especially in a rural state like Vermont, there’s not a ton of places people can go for help. Not only that, but access in the sense of the stigma that’s associated with charitable food.”

The lack of high paying jobs and the rising cost of gasoline are also major factors, among many, that add to food insecurity.

According to Sayles, it isn’t always that people receiving charitable food donations don’t have jobs. Rather, it is that since the last recession in 2008, more jobs tend to be part-time, as well as lower paying.

Even if these people do have a job but are still in this poverty zone, that does not necessarily mean that they can buy the food that they need. Some federal programs, such as SNAP, have a financial cutoff.
To be eligible for SNAP or 3SquaresVT, there are several criteria that must be met, one of the largest being an income cap. For a single-person household, the gross income cannot exceed $1,832 per month. For each additional person that is added in that household, the income limit grows by $642. So for a two-person household, their gross monthly income cannot exceed $2,470.

Fortunately, other programs do exist for those making too much money for SNAP but not enough for the necessary amount of nutritious food. One of the largest sources of charitable food donations is the Vermont Foodbank, whose headquarters is located in Barre, Vermont.

“Last year, the foodbank distributed about 12.5 million pounds of food,” said Sayles. “We’re, in some ways, the wholesale distributor of food to foodshelves and meal sites.”

With three distribution centers, located in Barre, Brattleboro and Rutland, as well as 225 network partners, the Foodbank serves 153,000 people every year. These network partners include locations like food shelves, food pantries, meal sites, homeless shelters, senior centers and out of school programs.

In Lamoille County alone, there are 19 food shelves and food pantries.

“Going to the food shelf is really a supplement to your income, because it’s money that you don’t have to spend at the grocery store,” said Sayles. “So that money can be shifted to other parts of a family’s budget.”

The SNAP and school programs, as well as the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental feeding program (WIC), are all federally funded. The WIC program “provides Federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk,” according to the USDA page.

The Vermont Foodbank and its network partners rely almost exclusively on private funding, such as the donations that make up the bulk of its food.

“So we do get administrative funds to fund the TEFAP and SNAP programs. And we get about $84,000 a year from the state,” said Sayles. “And together, that’s about $400,000 out of a $7 million operating budget. So the remainder of that is through individual donations. About 60 percent of that is individuals and small family foundations, and then the balance is larger foundations and international organizations.”

Currently, about half of the food that the foodbank receives is from donation. Thirty percent more of their food is from federal programs, which, for the most part, is donated as well. The remainder of the food is purchased wholesale by the truckload.

The Richmond Food Shelf funds itself by being attached to a thrift store, with around 80 percent of that funding coming from clothing sales. Any remaining money comes from cash donations at the door or people sending in checks. Local churches, schools and organizations also perform food drives for the food shelf.

One of the ways that the donated food is spread throughout the state is through the network partners.
“We operate it like a co-op. They can purchase the food through the foodbank at those wholesale prices,” said Sayles, “and we deliver it to them with our regular deliveries. I should add, too, that a lot of the food-shelves and meal sites don’t get all of their food from the Foodbank. They will go out and purchase food also.”

Government funds do not always enter the picture. For example, the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf receives no direct governmental fiscal assistance. “We purchase food . . . we don’t receive any government funds,” said Meehan. “So we raise money from our neighbors and surrounding communities, like grants, and fundraisers. We also have food rescues — we drive around and pick up food that would otherwise be wasted — and get commodities from the government. So the Vermont Foodbank distributes USDA commodities, and we receive the largest portion of that in Vermont.”

The criteria for receiving food aid depends on where people go for food, with not every site having the same conditions. For instance, a food shelf in a small town might serve the citizens of that town and possibly some of the other surrounding towns. But this service is conditional on evidence that that person lives in the town being served.

“We do not tie our services to any kind of income,” said Levison. “If people need food, then they can come in the door. We serve Huntington, Richmond and Jonesville. If someone were to come in from another area, we would serve them once and try to find a food shelf in their area. But if someone comes in the door, they get food.”

Federal programs like SNAP, TEFAP — which is The Emergency Food Assistance Program — or the Commodity Fundamental Food Program — for senior citizens — have income requirements, with the beneficiaries self-certifying for the benefits.

“They basically sign a form saying ‘I make less than this many dollars a month for my family,”’ said Sayles.

Food assistance programs have had to adjust to a greater influx of customers than they’ve had in years past, which forces greater responsibility on the foodbank to provide healthy food that is wanted and needed.

“For example, there’s about 20,000 people in Chittenden County that are living in food insecure households,” said Meehan. “We serve about 12,000 of those folks on-site at our multi-program, Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf. So, in a month, you might see . . . about 5,600 households. And the numbers of the people there are based on household size.”

There are also programs that distribute directly to the customer, such as VeggieVan Go, which is essentially a farmer’s market on wheels that serves schools and hospitals. The only requirement for this program is that if you want food, you show up.

“We’re much more than a food pantry, so we have a soup kitchen, we have culinary job training programs, we partner with the Foodbank,” said Meehan. “We have a food truck, called The Good Food Truck, which is also a mobile food pantry. We have the Homebound Delivery program, so we’re doing much more than just supplying groceries.”

Despite all of the efforts put forth by the various foodbanks, food shelves and other programs, the problem of food insecurity does not seem likely to be solved any time soon.

“So say in 2009 we were serving 40 families a month, 35 to 40 families, we’re now serving 70. I think people know we’re here and we’re a resource, [but] no, I do not see the problem getting any better,” said Levison.

Ed note: This article is the first of a six-part series exploring hunger in Vermont.