TOWNSHEND – Federal statistics offer some positive news for hunger in Vermont: During the past several years, the state’s rate of “food insecurity” has been trending slowly but steadily down.
But those numbers don’t mean much in the West River Valley region of Windham County, where community volunteers and school staffers are seeing a growing number of families who don’t have enough to eat.
Their responses are diverse: A nurse is starting an in-school food shelf; a community organization is hosting cooking classes and free soup nights; and Grace Cottage Hospital is trying to grow a ton of tomatoes for the local food bank.
Organizers of those efforts say they’re trying to make a small difference in the face of what can seem like an insurmountable problem.
“If we’re really going to make some changes, it’s one step at a time,” said Bill Monahan, a nurse who serves as outreach coordinator for Grace Cottage’s Community Health Team.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “food insecure households” as those that are “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, at some time during the year, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources.”
The federal agency also uses a subcategory called “very low food security” to delineate more severe hunger issues.
Rates for both categories spiked during the Great Recession of the late 2000s and remained high for several years, according to federal data.
But there has been a recent downward trend in those numbers, and Vermont is no exception.
Measured in three-year increments, the state’s percentage of food-insecure households jumped from 9.6 percent in 2004-06 to 13.6 percent in 2007-09 – the worst years of the recession. But the rate fell to 12.7 percent in 2010-12 and declined again to 11.43 percent in 2013-15, the Department of Agriculture’s state-by-state numbers show.
Vermont’s rate of very low food security also is declining, albeit by small margins. And, overall, both of Vermont’s food insecurity measures are slightly below national averages.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the state has no problem with hunger. Hunger Free Vermont says 27 percent of the state’s residents have incomes low enough to qualify for nutrition assistance programs such as 3SquaresVT, formerly known as food stamps.
Low incomes are part of southern Vermont’s well-documented economic issues. But Hunger Free Vermont also cites a shortage of affordable housing; a lack of public transportation; and fewer local, affordable grocery stores as factors contributing to food insecurity.
And the organization notes that hunger affects all ages: About 8 percent of those over 60 experience food insecurity, while nearly 14 percent of Vermont kids under age 18 are in food-insecure households.
That’s not a surprising statistic for administrators and staff at Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend, where Principal Bob Thibault says food insecurity “is real and very damaging to students’ learning in a variety of ways.”
At Leland & Gray, about 44 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. And Thibault says that, as students get older, it’s harder to get them signed up for that service.
“Older students are typically less likely to bring applications home and are more likely to not want to be associated with being identified in that manner, although they don’t realize that nobody really knows,” he said.
Sara Dunbar, Leland & Gray’s school nurse, is new on the job but has heard plenty of complaints about headaches and stomachaches due to lack of food. That’s why she’s working with organizations including the Stratton Foundation; the Townshend Community Food Shelf; Brattleboro-based Food Connects; and the Vermont Foodbank to start an in-school food shelf.
The idea is to provide produce, meats and dairy for each weekend to families of Leland & Gray students who are in need of such assistance.
“They can get two to three meals per day when they’re here at school,” Dunbar said. “It’s the out-of-school time that’s more concerning.”
At nearby Grace Cottage Hospital, the Vermont Foodbank drops off fresh produce and other items once a month. About 50 to 60 area residents typically show up to claim a share.
But with the need increasing – a 2015 assessment found that Townshend food shelf had served about a third of the town’s population in less than a year’s time – hospital staff wanted to do more.
Hence the recent launch of their “ton of tomatoes” project, through which they’re encouraging gardeners and farmers to grow 2,000 pounds of tomatoes that will be processed at West River Community Project’s kitchen, then frozen and distributed via the Townshend Community Food Shelf.
“It’s just kind of taken off,” Monahan said. “Within a day, I had a donation of 100 baby tomato plants.”
As for what a ton of tomatoes will look like, Monahan said, “I’ll let you know in September, because this is all brand-new.”
Grace Cottage staffers say they see the project as an extension of their preventive wellness initiatives. That’s why the tomato project “will turn itself into something that is sustainable and ongoing,” said Crystal Mansfield, who also works with the hospital’s Community Health Team.
“Healthy food is paramount to a healthy lifestyle,” Mansfield said. “We see, especially in this valley, a lot of surprises in terms of food insecurity. A lot of folks that you wouldn’t recognize or you wouldn’t stereotype as having any challenge with meeting a monthly household budget are really struggling. And it’s also reflected in their health, which is how they present to us.”
A little farther up Route 30, West River Community Project is seeing the same thing, said Cindy Leszczak, a board member for the West Townshend-based nonprofit.
The organization already operates the community kitchen, a cafe and a thrift store. In an attempt to combat the hunger problem, members have launched a monthly cooking class in cooperation with Grace Cottage, and they also started a free soup night.
“It’s not enough to give people food,” Leszczak said. “You can fill them up with empty calories. But they need nutritious food to keep them healthy.”
The community project is trying to raise money to extend and expand its offerings, but Leszczak said she’s concerned that proposed federal budget cuts could hamper anti-hunger efforts.
For now, she said, “we’re trying to really focus on what we can change.”
“Small acts of generosity added up can make a really wonderful and very important improvement in the quality of everyone’s lives,” Leszczak said.