When the Vermont Department for Children and Families first announced that a federal spending bill would end additional food stamp benefits this Friday, it included a bulleted list of resources to refer to “if you need more help with food.”
The list drew attention to the fact that even though the extra benefits were part of an emergency response to Covid-19 and were always intended to sunset, hunger remains an urgent crisis in Vermont.
Lena Greenberg, food access coordinator at the Intervale Center in Burlington, said cutting federal funding for hunger relief is out of touch with communities’ public health needs.
“We have no reason to believe that material conditions have improved for all of the people who are benefiting from these programs,” Greenberg said. The expiration of the extra benefits "is a travesty. This is horrible.”
In 2022, 2 in 5 Vermonters experienced hunger, according to a study from The University of Vermont. Now that Covid-19 pandemic supports are ending, local food organizers worry that number could rise.
Vermont’s Food & Nutrition Program has issued almost $189 million in total food benefits since March 2020, according to Leslie Wisdom, director of the program. Most families who already qualified for 3SquaresVT, Vermont’s food stamp program, also qualified for the extra benefits, Wisdom said. Since 2020, more than 68,000 Vermonters have received the extra funds for food.
With final payments having gone out this week, the end of the program will mean reductions in monthly benefits of between $100 and $500 per month for recipients.
“It’s always hard when you administer a program for people in need to have to lower the benefit amounts. We have to follow the federal rules, but I do think it's a hard time for families,” Wisdom said, citing inflation rates that have increased the price of food by 9.5% in the past year.
The expiration of the extra support may return many Vermonters to deeper food insecurity, according to Ivy Enoch, food security advocacy manager with Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide anti-hunger advocacy and education organization.
“Now for so many, impossible choices are going to have to be made between paying for basic needs (like) rent, a mortgage, food, or other necessary medical expenses,” Enoch said.
Food systems organizer Jean Myung Hamilton said that the loss of the extra pandemic food benefits is significant, especially since it coincides with the end of the federally funded Everyone Eats program, which Hamilton helped to manage. Everyone Eats — which also expired Friday — was producing and distributing 25,000 meals a week to Vermonters in need.
“It’s very painful to watch how quickly we become so callous to people's hunger,” said Hamilton, who has worked with groups including NOFA-VT, Conscious Homestead and the ReLeaf Collective, “which, as anyone who has ever been hungry before knows, feels dire and is an emergency all the time.”
The loss is felt “particularly for anyone who holds any number of marginalized identities,” she said. “Any additional need just stacks up, and often in very crippling ways.”
Food organizers across Vermont have been working to maintain and expand access to free and affordable food on statewide, local and grassroots levels, straining to fill the void that federal cuts are leaving. In the process, many are drawing attention to systemic failures of care and justice that have set the social and environmental stage for the hunger crisis.
“We have such an incredible network of people, organizations and entities devoted to feeding people in Burlington,” said Greenberg, who, as part of the Intervale Center, helps coordinate free produce distributions year round in partnership with farms in the Intervale, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and the Vermont Foodbank.
Greenberg says that while programs like 3SquaresVT are essential to helping people access food, community-run programs often have a deeper understanding of community needs.
The Intervale Center’s services are completely free and require no means testing or proof of income for people to access food. This, Greenberg said, is essential to serving folks who speak limited English, people experiencing temporary hardship or people on the benefits cliff, who make too much money to get benefits but still struggle to get enough food.
“I cannot tell you how many people I talk to who say it is such a gift that you run a program that just feeds people,” Greenberg said.
This week, Greenberg said they have been working to update Burlington’s Free Food Map, an online and printable resource that highlights locations throughout the city where people can find free food.
One resource that appears on that map is the People’s Kitchen, a grassroots food organization that distributes hot meals.
The group helps to feed the people who need it most by coming to them, setting up weekly hot meal distribution sites in Burlington neighborhoods as well as meal delivery during the month of Ramadan, according to FaRied Munarsyah, activist and organizer with the People’s Kitchen. In the process, the group helps eliminate food waste by using ingredients that grocery stores or food shelves would have discarded.
“We do try to put the ‘mutual’ in ‘mutual aid,’” Munarsyah said, “Often, like if we bring food to the families, the next week, they'll help cook something for us, which makes it really a reciprocal relationship.”
According to Munarsyah, creating food access is about creating relationships between farmers, growers, eaters and other organizers.
The People’s Farm Stand, run by Nour El-Naboulsi, Naomi Peduzzi and Sadie Bloch, was originally founded in partnership with the People's Kitchen. Now, the groups act as sister organizations, with the People’s Farm Stand distributing free produce while the People’s Kitchen offers hot meals.
When El-Naboulsi first heard that the extra 3SquaresVT benefits were ending, he said he felt inspired to create even stronger networks of collaboration. “We work with a lot of new American families,” he said, “So we’re thinking about how we can make (resources such as) the free food map easily understandable.”
According to Lindsey Berk, director of ACORN, a small nonprofit that works to strengthen local food and farming communities in the Champlain Valley watershed, efforts to alleviate hunger also necessitate an investigation of colonial systems that disguise the planet’s abundance and concentrate power in the hands of a wealthy few.
“Food should be a right,” Berk said. “So the question becomes whether we can envision a world where the state also agrees that food is a right.”
Andrew Courtney, director of Foodworks, which calls itself the most heavily utilized food shelf program in Brattleboro, said his organization is anticipating increased need as a result of the expiring extra benefits.
“We're all sort of bracing for what that impact might be,” Courtney said.
Even food shelf organizers who specialize in facilitating charitable food donations question whether this form of support is ideal or not.
“Charity doesn't seem to be the smartest method,” said Rob Meehan, director of Feeding Chittenden. “What would be better would be to use those tax dollars to kind of normalize food and make food available in a variety of ways to everyone.”
Meehan said federal funding for programs such as 3SquaresVT helps keep dollars circulating within the local economy, benefiting growers and vendors alongside those consuming the food.
As communities come together to help feed each other, many organizers are quick to make the case that, in an ideal world, federal funding would prioritize the alleviation of human hunger. Some are considering how legislative action may be able to help address the hunger crisis.
Emily Landenberger, the co-chair of the Addison County Hunger Council, said the group met with legislators recently to advocate for universal school meals for students in Vermont.
Food organizers also have their eyes trained on current efforts to pass a new federal farm bill, which some say could address food insecurity and climate-related disasters.
“The farm bill basically approves the spending for (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, and that's a place where policy changes for the SNAP program historically are made through congressional action,” Wisdom said.
At the end of February, a coalition of 500 hunger and nutrition groups released a list of their 2023 farm bill priorities, which included expanding access to benefits. Meanwhile, other progressive groups have hosted events like the Food Not Feed Summit to advocate funding for regenerative farming practices.
Greenberg agreed that prioritizing such practices — on global and local scales — contributes to food security and climate resilience.
“Regional, agriculture and reciprocal relationships between farmers and eaters could yield a food system that actually meets our needs as growers and eaters, as people are trying to survive the last — hopefully the last — gasps of late capitalism,” Greenberg said.