USDA rep says limited resources pose threat to hungry youth

James Arena-DeRosa, right, regional administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service speaks to a group of Vermont nutrition leaders assembled by Hunger Free Vermont Executive Director Marissa Parisi, left. VTD/Taylor Dobbs
James Arena-DeRosa, right, regional administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service speaks to a group of Vermont nutrition leaders assembled by Hunger Free Vermont Executive Director Marissa Parisi, left. VTD/Taylor Dobbs

Vermont leads the nation in farmers markets, CSA membership, and consumption of local foods, but Vermont children are still hungry. In the summer, when they’re not in school every day, feeding children becomes a greater challenge.

This issue of hunger was at the center of a roundtable meeting between Vermont nutrition and health leaders and James Arena-DeRosa, regional administrator of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“I do think we have some challenges,” said Arena-DeRosa. The foremost concern, he said, is limited financial resources. He said it’s crucial to make sure that programs are as efficient as possible, and collaboration between school food service programs, school administrators, nonprofits and state and federal agencies is essential to that end.

Arena-DeRosa, who works with state nutrition programs in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York, said the meeting helped him get a better idea of how federal policies are impacting local communities in Vermont.

“I’d love to see this repeating in other states,” he said.

Kathy Alexander, president of Vermont’s School Nutrition Association and director of Addison Northeast Supervisory Union’s food service cooperative, said that while administrative efficiency is key, the root of the problem is a very human one.

“We know [children] are there and we know they’re hungry,” she said. “We just need to figure out how to get food to them [in the summer.]”

Vermont’s summer meals program, which serves low-income children at 112 sites around the state for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, or a combination thereof, places Vermont at 11th nationally in access to summer meals programs.

Marissa Parisi, executive director Hunger Free Vermont, said: “When schools close in June, many of these children lost their most important source of balanced nutrition. Studies indicate that low-income kids are more likely to gain weight and fall behind their peers academically during the summer months.”

Susan Bartlett, special advisor to Gov. Peter Shumlin, said paperwork requirements are a roadblock more Vermont children aren’t enrolled in nutritional assistance programs is the paperwork. Bartlett’s suggestion that paperwork for such programs be streamlined, making it easier for families to get involved in health programs.

Both Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sent staff members to the meeting. Philip Fiermonte, outreach coordinator for Sanders, told Arena-DeRosa that Vermont’s congressional delegation in Washington would be accommodating if the USDA sought testing grounds for pilot nutrition programs.

The event was hosted at Burlington High School’s cafeteria where students are involved in Burlington’s summer food program, in which they learn to garden and prepare healthy foods for themselves and their peers.

Doug Davis, food service director for Burlington Schools and president-elect of Vermont’s School Nutrition Association, coordinated a lunch after the meeting as well as a tour of Burlington’s summer food program at the high school.

Davis echoed Bartlett’s concerns about bureaucratic inefficiencies that can inhibit the efficacy of publicly funded food programs.

“How can we streamline that [process] so that schools can get more money [for nutrition?]” he mused.

Arena-DeRosa stayed quiet for much of the meeting, taking notes and listening to the discussion unfold around him. When Alexander expressed her concerns about getting food to hungry children in the summer, Arena-DeRosa acknowledged the magnitude of the issue.

“Transportation (of foodstuffs) is a big problem,” he said, especially in rural states such as Vermont.

Despite Vermont’s problems, the state is a national leader in nutrition and health, and Arena-DeRosa said at the end of the meeting that he hopes to bring some of Vermont’s leaders to other states to train and educate them about how to improve their systems.

“It would be great to share some of these examples with other states, not only in New England, but across the country,” said Arena-DeRosa. While there is no official state exchange program in place now, he said he hopes to see one begin soon.

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