KILLINGTON — As the new communications director for the Vermont Foodbank, Nicole Whalen faces several challenges publicizing the state’s primary supplier for community cupboards, soup kitchens and shelters.
“People see Vermont as a mecca for good, healthy food,” she said, “but what we don’t talk about enough is the other side.”
The nonprofit organization, whose regional warehouses in Barre Town, Brattleboro and Rutland supply 225 local food shelves and free meal sites, saw annual distribution rise last year to a record 12 million pounds of staple goods.
“But it’s hard to say if we’re distributing more food because the need is increasing,” Whalen said, “or because we’re doing a better job reaching people.”
The latter could be seen Friday when the food bank welcomed 300 representatives of health and human service agencies, schools, spiritual communities, and public and private philanthropic organizations to its annual Hunger Action Conference at the Killington Grand Resort Hotel.
“People who don’t have enough food don’t have the bandwidth to be good students, parents, employees or citizens,” Chief Executive Officer John Sayles said. “We have a system in place to get them those essentials, but we’re not going to end hunger by giving away more food. We have to start figuring out how to talk and work with others about housing, health care and employment support.”
As a first step, the organization invited Paul Born, head of Canada’s Tamarack Institute and author of the book “Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times,” to offer workshops on organizing at the local level.
“We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said, “but we’ve got to do it collectively.”
Born had good words for Vermont.
“This is one great state,” he said. “Come on, Bernie Sanders?”
But Born was one of several speakers who criticized the federal government and, specifically, last week’s U.S. House vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m not political,” he said. “I’m just saying taking Medicare away from people is not a loving thing to do.”
The Vermont Foodbank, working with a $7 million annual budget (add in the value of donated food and labor, and the figure rises to $20 million), negotiates deals with manufacturers and distributors, contracts with local farms to grow and glean produce, and collects meat, dairy and other perishable donations from supermarkets and restaurants.
“Though our mission is not changing, the way we approach the problem of hunger is constantly evolving,” Whalen said. “We’re focusing on community engagement and empowering those we serve in a more healthy way.”
The organization has introduced a VT Fresh fruit and vegetable program offering cooking demonstrations and taste tests as well as a VeggieVanGo vehicle traveling to schools, hospitals and senior housing. Through such efforts, its annual distribution of local produce has risen to a half-million pounds.
The state’s largest hunger-relief organization is funded 70 percent by community donations and the rest by corporate and government support. After facing several years of budget shortfalls or flat giving, Sayles said contributions are up slightly.
Demand isn’t as easily reported. The latest “Hunger in America” study, released in 2014, is now three years old, and its estimate that 153,000 Vermonters — or 1 in 4 — have received some sort of help from a food shelf or free meal site has elicited shock from some and skepticism from others.
Said Whalen: “People say hunger is happening — but somewhere else. Bringing that home is a real challenge for us.”
And Sayles: “It’s hard to understand how the problem feels unless you’ve been in that situation. I haven’t, but I hope I am empathic enough to be able to at least imagine.”