Guest Post from a Hunger Fellow: The State of Hunger in Vermont

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Posted: October 7, 2014

The following is a guest post from Emerson Hunger Fellow Nora Leccese. She will work over the next four months to identify opportunities for the charitable food system to collaborate with the local food system to make fresh food more accessible to low income Vermonters.  She is focusing specifically on how the Vermont Foodbank could use the Venture Center to minimally process (chop, freeze and bag) fresh produce to reduce waste and provide more nutritious food to clients year round.

Hello everyone! I am so pleased to be working in Vermont and eager to share my findings with you. Over the next 4 months, I will share stories from my visits with farmers, expeditions in industrial kitchens, and excursions into the world of food processing and distribution. Here is a brief introduction to hunger in Vermont, please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions or ideas.

Autumn is a time in Vermont where abundance is on everyone’s mind; I’ve heard people scheming about how to unload bushels of cucumbers on their neighbors and planning to harvest apples by the case to preserve for the winter. It can be easy in this rich landscape to forget that this abundance is not accessible to everyone. Statewide, over 153,000 people, (that is one in four) live with food insecurity, which is defined as the lack of access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources. Food insecurity looks different for each family; it can be when families run out of food, when families reduce the quality of food their family eats resulting in unbalanced meals, or when parents/guardians  skip meals so that their children can eat.

Since the 2008 recession, food banks and food shelves in Vermont have seen an increase in their clientele that has lead to expansions of storage facilities, nutrition education, and gleaning initiatives. The “emergency food” system which includes pantries, community meals, and food banks has become not so much “emergency” as “sustaining”. Access to food assistance has become critical to round out many household budgets each month. This means that traditional staples at foodbanks and food pantries like powdered milk, canned fruit, sugary cereal and other government commodities also became staples at the dinner table of low income folks.

It may seem paradoxical, but there is a well-documented correlation between hunger and obesity. Often times high calorie processed foods are the cheapest and most readily available, where-as vegetables, fruits and whole grains can be prohibitively expensive or absent on supermarket shelves in low income areas. On top of that, preparing whole, well balanced meals takes time and adds to the long list of tasks already assigned to heads of household, especially working mothers. The adult obesity rate in Vermont is 57.7% and addressing food insecurity should be an integral part of the conversation about obesity in the state.

Food assistance providers across the country have recognized that the food in their warehouses sustains families long term, and have taken enormous steps to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for their clients. The Vermont Foodbank distributes over 8 million pounds of food each year to food shelves, low income residences, and social service organizations. In the past 8 years, they have substantially expanded their gleaning program, their bulk purchases of fresh produce, and education around cooking and preservation of fresh food.

My work over the next four months is to understand how to better distribute the estimated 2 million pounds of agricultural surplus in Vermont to low income people around the state. I will be focusing on how to use minimal processing techniques like blanching, freezing or packaging to preserve both local and national surplus produce. I am working with the Center for an Agricultural Economy and the Vermont Foodbank to assess current capacity for preservation and distribution of fresh vegetables within the charitable food system and I will be making recommendations on how to expand these programs. These efforts will help save more of the harvest from going to waste and ensure that more Vermonters have access to the abundance of autumn.



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