Jim Logan serves Hollly Fox’s dessert plate in Feeding Chittenden’s parking lot. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

President Joe Biden approved the largest-ever permanent increase in food stamp benefits on Monday. Proponents say the move will make a difference for Vermonters, who continue to experience higher levels of food insecurity than in pre-pandemic times. 

Starting in October, the 38,422 Vermont households and 66,104 Vermonters currently participating in 3SquaresVT — the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — will see their benefits rise by about 25%. The average participating household now receives $412 per month, which does not meet the cost of food, according to Leslie Wisdom, director of the food and nutrition program at the Vermont Department for Children and Families. 

The increase will provide a much-needed boost to Vermonters, many of whom continue to experience food insecurity made worse by the pandemic.

Nearly one in three Vermonters has experienced food insecurity — defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle” — at some point since the start of the pandemic, and almost two-thirds of those Vermonters were still struggling to feed themselves and their families a year into the pandemic, according to a University of Vermont report issued this month.

Among the primary factors driving the elevated and sustained levels of food insecurity is job disruptions caused by the pandemic, including job loss, reduction in work hours or income and furlough, said Ashley McCarthy, lead author of the report and postdoctoral researcher at UVM. 

The report outlines results of the latest in three surveys of 441 Vermonters — a sample roughly representative of the rest of the state demographically — conducted throughout the pandemic as part of a study into the effects of Covid-19 on food insecurity.

Percent of respondents experiencing food insecurity prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic. Note that food insecurity prevalence corresponds with different time frames. Courtesy University of Vermont

“What we’re seeing is that the pandemic is likely to have a longer-term impact,” Meredith Niles, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at UVM and lead researcher on the study, said in a statement. “Many people faced long-term job disruptions, and even though some may be back at work, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still facing financial hardships.”

More than half of survey participants reported a job disruption during the pandemic, and 18.4% were still experiencing that disruption in March. 

People who experienced those job disruptions were three times as likely as those who did not to experience food insecurity, and people without college degrees were 4.1 times more likely than those with a college education. Women and households with children were both 2.4 times more likely, and people under 55 were two times more likely to experience food insecurity, according to the report. 

Across the state, female and BIPOC Vermonters as well as families with young children were most likely to experience food insecurity as a result of the pandemic, Wisdom said.

Slightly more than half of survey respondents became newly food-insecure during the pandemic.  Those still experiencing food insecurity are more likely to have been food-insecure before the pandemic, according to the report.

Even as food insecurity persists, reliance on food assistance programs decreased among the survey population. 

Participation in food assistance programs increased across the board at the start of the pandemic but have since declined. Fewer participants now receive aid from school meal programs, food pantries, and the Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children than before the pandemic, according to the report. 

Change in food assistance program use during the Covid-19 pandemic. Courtesy University of Vermont

Wisdom said SNAP participation levels increased 8% at the start of the pandemic and have remained relatively steady, but many Vermonters who need food assistance are not receiving that benefit. Only 46% of eligible Vermonters — in general, any household at 185% of the federal poverty line — and only 41.5% of eligible Vermonters older than 60 participate. 

She says many people who could benefit from the program avoid applying because of the stigma that surrounds food assistance, a problem that Feeding Chittenden, a charitable food organization in Burlington, also faces.

The organization provides a variety of services, including an emergency food bank, to about 12,000 Vermonters each year, significantly fewer than the estimated 20,000 food-insecure Vermonters in Chittenden County, according to Anna McMahon, Feeding Chittenden donor and community engagement manager.

Feeding Chittenden reported a 33% increase in Vermonters seeking its services at the beginning of the pandemic, but economic aid programs — such as emergency hotel housing, increased unemployment and stimulus checks — have meant fewer people have needed the organization’s aid in recent months. 

The report found that participants worried less about food becoming more expensive and not being able to afford food or to connect with food assistance programs than they did at the beginning of the pandemic.

But as some of those programs end and Covid-19 cases rise across the state, McMahon anticipates need will sharply increase through the winter. 

McCarthy said there is no way to know when food insecurity will return to pre-pandemic levels, especially since many Vermonters continue to experience job disruptions. Even after work becomes more stable, those who experienced disruptions will take more time to recover economically and may still face food insecurity. 

“It’s hard to say how long we might expect this trend to continue because we’re still seeing the impacts of the pandemic, and we’re not fully out of it,” McCarthy said.

When people experience economic hardship, “food is the first thing that gets cut,” McMahon said. 

As long as economic insecurity persists, so will food insecurity. And even if the pandemic were to end today, it might take years for people to recover economically and gain secure access to food, McCarthy said.

Wikipedia: jwelch@vtdigger.org. Reporter Sophia McDermott-Hughes has previously written for The Trace, as well as the Middlebury Campus, Middlebury College's student newspaper.