March 6, 2019

What Vermont taught us about fighting food insecurity

Though Vermont has made  strides in tackling childhood hunger, nearly 19,000 children still face food insecurity. What will it take to end childhood hunger in the state—and beyond?

Last year, we talked to area advocates, program staff, service providers, and residents about their experiences with food insecurity. Although Vermont is small, rural, and largely homogenous, the lessons we learned and the innovative solutions stakeholders have implemented are applicable to communities nationwide.

1. Federal assistance is crucial for low-income families—but it’s not enough.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps, plays a crucial role in providing nutrition support for families. In 2018, over 40 million people nationwide participated in the program.

In 2008, Vermont increased state eligibility, from households with incomes at 130 percent of the federal poverty level or below to households with incomes at 185 percent of federal poverty level. At the time, this allowed an estimated 30,000 additional families to participate. In 2018, 40,037 households in the state participated in SNAP. 

But families with limited economic means still face trade-offs to make ends meet. In a state with high housing and utilities costs, food is a fungible expense. As benefits run out at the end of the month, families might have to sacrifice the amount or quality (and therefore nutritional value) of their food to pay for bills and other necessary costs.

Food insecurity often lies at the intersection of larger systemic or structural inequities. Many Vermonters live in isolated, rural areas with limited access to healthy, affordable food. Inadequate public transit means that most families must rely on cars to travel, and it may take considerable time to access the closest grocery store or food shelf.

2. School- and child care–based programs are crucial, but can do more.

School systems are critical partners in addressing food insecurity. Placing food programs in schools means students receive meals in a familiar and consistent place.

Vermont has increased the availability of federally funded programs, including the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, becoming the first state to eliminate the reduced-price lunch category, so all eligible students now receive meals for free.

Children still face barriers to accessing their meals through schools, though. Vermont’s declining population means fewer children are in the state, leading to cuts in education budgets and school consolidation. Children travel farther to get to school, sometimes missing before-school mealtimes.

Additionally, school meals are limited to times when school is in session, leaving kids without meals during holidays and in the summer. And not all children are connected to schools; children too young for preschool and older youth disconnected from school can have limited or inconsistent access to food services.

This tells us that states and localities should push to expand school-based programming, move school breakfast to after the start of the school day, advocate for universal meals, and look for ways to increase child care food programs.

Kids can be stuck at home, and they may be five miles from a site that has summer meals, but they don’t have any way to get there. We’re not densely populated enough for them to take a bus or walk to a summer meal site. So, that makes it more challenging to reach the kids and teens who need services, particularly in the summer when there’s no school meals. 

—Service Provider

3. Food insecurity is a cross-sector issue.

Food pantries and nonprofits cannot solve the problem alone. Other sectors must bring solutions to the table.

Vermont’s health care system piloted a food insecurity screening program and partnered with hospitals to provide fresh produce through Community Supported Agriculture shares and vegetable prescriptions.

Private industry, particularly Vermont’s agriculture sector, has found ways to get involved through joint employment or food programs, such as gleaning, where leftover crops are picked postharvest.

We uncovered other areas ripe for cross-sector collaboration, particularly connected to transportation. Mobile food delivery programs, such as VeggieVanGo, or including meals with existing programs like Burlington’s Recreation and Nutrition Drop-In Program, can help address transportation barriers by bringing food to participants.

4. Policymakers need to focus on communities on the margins and address stigma.

Food insecurity can take many forms. Some families are consistently food insecure, and others may experience intermittent food insecurity because of a precipitating event, such as an illness or job loss. Support may look different for each group, so stakeholders should tailor their approaches.

Policymakers in particular should focus on communities in the margins—the Vermonters that feel excluded from or lack access to programs, like those in rural communities or those that face language barriers or are unaware of resources.

Immigrant and refugee communities, for example, could benefit from additional support in navigating complex systems and flexibility in government programs to allow for more diverse food options. Focus group participants told us they look for and appreciate programming that is culturally responsive and involves their active participation and feedback in the design.

There’s also an unbelievable pride and resistance to asking for help, high desire for privacy. We know there are many more kids who would be eligible for school meal programs, but their family won’t fill out the application. 

—Advocate

There is still stigma around receiving government benefits, but policymakers can help dismantle it. Across cultures, meals bring people together. Integrating food in fun and creative ways can help build community and address crucial needs. Community-led food programs create spaces to design food initiatives, such as community gardens, cooking lessons, and farming or gleaning partnerships. Creating or funding programs that still provide food resources to communities but do not center on food deficits make food just another aspect of an engaging program.

Stakeholders, community advocates, policymakers, and state and local governments in Vermont have taken important steps toward increasing healthy food access for everyone. However, systemic barriers mean that these efforts, although meaningful, have not ended food insecurity and hunger in the state, and that policy change is required to address underlying economic insecurity.

Increasing opportunities for community-led programs, raising awareness of available resources, and building cross-sector partnerships to leverage resources are all ways to fight childhood food insecurity and hunger, and not just in Vermont.

Photo via Shutterstock.

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