Government-funded programs to keep people fed during the pandemic will end in December, and people on Vermont’s hunger front lines worry that the result will be alarming rates of food insecurity.
Both the state-run Everyone Eats program and the federal Farmers to Families food box program will end in the next month. Hungry Vermonters will still be able to use permanent programs, such as 3squares VT, but those programs weren’t designed to deal with the impact of surging need as the coronavirus spurs restrictions on businesses and gatherings.
Before Covid-19 arrived, one of every 10 Vermonters struggled with food insecurity. Now one in every four residents in the state struggles to obtain adequate nutrition.
The Gund Institute at the University of Vermont found that 50% of state residents have experienced job losses over the past six months. So far, Congress has not taken action to extend pandemic-related aid, including expanded federal unemployment benefits.
With a quarter of Vermonters having trouble getting enough nourishing food, Vermont is at the top of the national food-needy list, along with West Virginia and North Dakota, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
And the rates are even higher for communities of color, women, and families with young children, according to the Gund Institute. Before the pandemic, food insecurity rates had been on the decline for a decade.
Food insecurity doesn’t look the same for everyone. It ranges from going hungry with not enough food to meet basic needs to families who are scraping by with help from food shelves but living with constant worry about whether there will be enough to eat. In the middle are people who resort to eating cheap calories that don’t provide vital nutrients.
For Vermonters living paycheck to paycheck, losing a job or having hours reduced because of the pandemic is often enough to make it impossible to afford nourishing food. But hunger is also a health issue, a problem that is especially urgent now, when a healthy diet can be the difference between a strong immune system and one that is vulnerable to Covid-19, among other illnesses.
At the outset of the pandemic, an outpouring of relief helped alleviate hunger, but now there is a resurgence of need as the aid programs dry up.
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The Everyone Eats program, funded through $5 million from Vermont’s share of the federal CARES Act, expires Dec. 14. Everyone Eats is on course to serve 500,000 meals by then. The program pays restaurants to prepare those meals, so it’s been a steady source of income for restaurants at a time when regular business flatlined because of the virus.
Since the pandemic began, the Vermont Foodbank has nearly doubled its distribution, but the nonprofit can only expand so much, Nicole Whalen, Vermont Foodbank director of communications, wrote in an email to VTDigger.
The Foodbank provides food to a network of food shelves in the state.
“We’re meant to help fill the gap left by government programs, not to be the first line of defense,” Whalen said.
‘No one wants to be that person’
For people without enough to eat, it’s often difficult to seek help.
“It’s not a good feeling,” said Barre resident Amanda Alexander. “I used to be homeless, so I know how it feels not to have food.”
Alexander spent time at a homeless shelter in Barre, the Good Samaritan Haven, and when she needed a meal she used to go to the food shelf and soup kitchens.
“When you’re standing in the line waiting for food, no one wants to be that person,” she said.
But there were moments of generosity that surprised her — when the Boy Scouts who came to serve meals at Good Samaritan, and when organizations brought gifts to the shelter while she spent Christmas there.
“I didn’t think there were that many generous people,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Alexander said her probation officer showed her a pamphlet for a program called the Community Kitchen Academy. She enrolled and learned how to cook. When the virus took hold, classes had to go online; when students went back to in-person classes, they wore masks and stayed at least 6 feet apart.
Alexander now works at Capstone Community Action, cooking and serving meals for others in need. She said working there makes her feel like a better person. She credits the changes in her life to her teacher at the academy, Chef Joey.
Alexander urged people who are struggling to reach out for help. “I used to be someone that didn’t ask for help,” she said, but “no one knows that you need help except for you.”
Frustrating delays for food boxes
As people are increasingly in need, the programs they can turn to for help become even more important.
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But there have been bumps along the way, and it is clear that challenges remain in the coming months.
While the USDA has announced that the Farmers to Families food box program will continue through November and December, critical details have yet to be announced.
Experts worry that will lead to a pause in the program — as happened in September, when contractors rushed to fill the need for food.
“New contracts have to be submitted and approved; the system has to get stood up again,” said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.
The delays lead to real consequences for Vermonters. “There’s going to be gaps,” said Horton, citing concerns about hunger and food insecurity this winter.
While hunger is a year-round issue, heating and plowing can make the cost of living in Vermont higher in the winter. “It’s uncertain how much more that program is going to be able to provide food” in the coming months, Horton said.
John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, said the delays have been frustrating. “USDA just kind of fumbled the ball.” He said that, since it began in May, the Farmers to Families box has been a “bumpy ride.”
Sayles said the Vermont Foodbank didn’t distribute any boxes in September, and he doesn’t know if it will be able to distribute any in November, either.
“USDA’s delays are going to delay food getting out to families,” Sayles said.
The vendor has yet to be announced, and no one yet knows how many food boxes will be distributed to Vermont. “There’s no way to plan for what’s coming up,” he said.
While the USDA used the Abbey group, a Vermont-based contractor, for the first two rounds of the program, the second contract was given to large, out-of-state companies — Costa Fruit and Sysco. The decision was concerning to Vermont lawmakers.
Although the program was designed to support local food systems, that didn’t happen in the last round, when “contracts went to huge producers, even though one of the stated goals was to make sure small and mid-sized producers were able to participate,” said Laurie Beyranevand, director for agriculture and food systems at the Vermont Law School.
“That was somewhat problematic and not where the greatest need was in terms of farm viability and thinking about how to support farmers through the crisis,” said Beyranevand, who co-authored a recent report detailing recommendations to coordinate a national food policy.
According to the report, the inefficiencies and injustices revealed by Covid are problems that have existed in food systems for a long time. Beyranevand says a more cohesive and cooperative approach could tackle these issues, but that would require new lawmaking to be effective.
Advocates have also criticized the Farmers to Families program because, they say, it isn’t a very dignified way for families to get food; it takes away choices that families should be able to make themselves about what foods they are going to receive.
“People need to have choice for the foods that work best for their families, and these food box programs do not provide that,” Sayles said. “If you’re lactose-intolerant and you get a box with 3 pounds of cheese and a gallon of milk,” that food won’t feed your family. Families who keep kosher or halal could have a similar issue with food boxes that aren’t designed to meet their specific needs.
“Giving people the resources to buy food the way they usually do is much more dignified,” he said.
The good news is the federally funded 3SquaresVT, Vermont’s SNAP program, does just that.
3SquaresVT is Vermont’s food stamp program. Participants use an electronic benefits card to buy food at a local grocery store or a farmers market. The program has been expanded since the pandemic began, allowing households to receive the maximum monthly benefit amount. But for families already receiving that amount, the program didn’t change.
“There are certain options that lower barriers to participation,” Horton said. “Our state has been really great at taking all those options, but there’s a certain point beyond which states can’t go because federal rules supersede what we might do at the state level.”
Horton points to a new, simplified application that older Vermonters and people with disabilities can use. Getting people to participate can help not only the individuals, but also the community more broadly.
“That money goes straight into our local economy and it keeps jobs going, our farmers going, it keeps our food system going,” said Horton, who is urging anyone who is eligible to apply for the program.
“Not only is it going to help you and your family, but it’s going to help our community and our state because it brings federal dollars into our state and it puts them into our local food system. Right directly into our local economy.”
But 3SquaresVT has some problems, too.
“It’s too hard to qualify and the benefits are too small,” Sayles said. “A lot of people who can’t afford enough nourishing food aren’t eligible.” Sayles wants the federal government to increase the benefits and make more people eligible for the program, but that requires action at the federal level.
Hunger Free Vermont does that kind of advocacy at the federal level. Under he Trump administration, the nonprofit has mostly been on the defensive, fighting attempts to cut funding.
“We were able to prevent cuts from taking effect for now, but what really needs to happen is an expansion of who is eligible and the amount of benefit that is available to people,” Horton said.
In contrast to 3SquaresVT, Covid-related programs didn’t include income requirements, so people who couldn’t get 3SquaresVT were able to use programs like Farmers to Families and Everyone Eats.
Another program that advocates urge families to use is Meals for Kids, which provides free meals for all children under the age of 18. “The more people use this program, the better off financially our schools and our school programs are going to be,” Horton said, since Meals for Kids greatly expands school lunch programs. That program will last through June, and no application is required.
WIC and Meals on Wheels are two other federally funded programs that will remain available. These programs “are ours,” Horton said. “We have paid for them with our tax dollars while we were working. If now you’re laid off, they are yours. Use them.”
For up-to-date information about help that is available for people facing food insecurity, this page on Hunger Free Vermont explains how to help and how to obtain food during the pandemic.