Written by Sarah Parsons West
Grand Isle – While hunger and food insecurity remain issues throughout Vermont, collaborative efforts to overcome isolation and provide access to nutritious foods are progressing statewide.
Statistics alone are alarming, with ten-percent of all Vermonter’s lacking regular access to nutritious foods; and perhaps even more startling is the 15-percent of vulnerable children.
“There are a lot of folks who are struggling, and it could be any of us,” says Katy Davis, Community Health Initiative Director at Hunger Free Vermont, in So. Burlington. “It’s important to know that there are programs around to support all of us – and they’re critical.”
Hunger Free Vermont believes that everyone, at every age, has the right to nutritious food – through dignified and traditional channels, to sustain a healthy and active life. Through advocacy and integration, the statewide organization works to end the injustice of hunger and malnutrition across the generations.
Celebrating a quarter-century of success, Hunger Free Vermont continues to provide long-term, systematic leadership in nutritional education and food accessibility; tackling infrastructure barriers at the local, state, regional and federal levels when necessary.
The mission remains to inspire the hearts and minds of the public to build a strong will to end hunger through self-sufficiency. Numerous families across Grand Isle County in need of such support participated in a community Food Access survey implemented by Hunger Free Vermont. Results revealed ‘an alarmingly high rate of childhood hunger, with a strong likelihood that the issue spans the age spectrum of residents.’
To develop solutions for addressing food insecurity in the region, the Partnership for a Hunger-Free Grand Isle County (HFGI) was formed with support from UVM Medical Center Foundation. With Hunger Free Vermont serving as the backbone support, the partner organizations of HFGI are establishing and expanding nutrition programs available to eligible residents through a collective, integrated approach.
Collaborators include the Champlain Islands Farmers Market; Champlain Islands Health Center; C.I.D.E.R. (Champlain Islanders Developing Essential Resources, Inc.); Congregational Church of South Hero: Food for Thought; CVOEO (Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity): Northwest Family Foods; Grand Isle Methodist Church: Champlain Islands Food Shelf; Grand Isle Supervisory Union; Hunger Free Vermont; Islands in the Sun Senior Center; Northwestern Medical Center: RiseVT & Healthy Roots Collaborative; United Way of Northwest Vermont; and the Vermont Department of Health.
“Many of those folks also take part in the Hunger Council of Franklin and Grand Isle Counties,” says Davis. With ten Hunger Councils established across the state amplifying the mission of Hunger Free Vermont, community members quickly learn about local causes and effects of hunger, creating tools to improve nutrition and reduce hunger close to home.
The HFGI group focuses on strategies to overcome the physical and social isolation that pose obstacles to regional food access, and tackles the perceived stigma associated with benefiting from nutrition programs.
“There’s a stigma on the islands about receiving assistance,” says Davis. “When people are struggling, yet forfeit getting the help they need, it doesn’t benefit anyone or the community.”
While the HFGI partnership strives to lower the rate of food insecurity in Grand Isle by exploring ways to reach those families and individuals in need, they began by identifying barriers that made service delivery more difficult. Geographic remoteness and sparse population centers exaggerate public visibility of activities in the small towns, causing reluctancy for people to make use of services that are available. Those without transportation are limited further, not being able to travel to access resources.
The collaborative efforts of HFGI are slowly overcoming barriers, one by one. Food is being delivered to homes, with twice as many households now being served by remote food shelves. Volunteers at C.I.D.E.R. provide both transportation and delivery to residents in special need of direct assistance, especially the elderly and disabled.
Additional HFGI partnership projects include the creation of a localized resource guide; providng affordable access to Farmer’s Markets, with the use of 3SquareVT and other incentive programs; food security in schools through meal programs; and medical outreach and screenings.
Since food insecurity poses harmful and costly impacts to the physical and emotional well-being, doctors and medical staff serve an important role in providing patients with a holistic approach to health care. To better identify and serve their patients, The Champlain Islands Health Center has adopted the Hunger Vital Sign (a two-question food insecurity screening tool), across their network.
“Advocating for meals as a part of early childhood care is important,” says Davis, “but not more important than other pieces of the HFVT programs.” Helping to fund and provide nutritious foods for kids in childcare centers, schools, afterschool and summer programs, remains vital in the fight against malnutrition.
“Schools in Alburgh and Isle la Motte are now participating in the Universal Free School Meals program,” says Davis, which means that all students get to eat school meals for free. Universal Meals allow for an experience where every kid is equal and can enjoy their meals together. Hunger Free Vermont says universal free school meal programs increase participation, leading to better student health and learning, and a strong school meals business.
“Healthy Roots has been a great collaborator imbedded in the schools, ensuring that all kids who should receive free lunch are receiving,” says Davis. “The power of the collective work has been one of the best pieces of these partnerships.”
Hunger Free Vermont believes that each of us has a crucial part to play to end the injustice of hunger and malnutrition in Vermont. That includes empowering yourself, by taking part in assistance programs, even when it feels difficult. Approximately 27-percent of Vermont residents are currently living on incomes which qualify them for federal nutrition assistance programs, like 3SquaresVT.
“There’s a broad frustration due to structural injustices in our society; that everyone doesn’t have enough to get the best shot in life,” says Davis. “Access to adequate nutrition to thrive along the path is needed. The resources are there to help buffer when times are tough for individuals and families. It benefits the community as well, for everyone to get what they need.”
The responsibility is also ours to keep the government accountable for implementing, maintaining and improving nutritional-based programs and funding.
“When needs are met, and results are being made through federal funding, it could end hunger,” Davis says, with hope for a sated future. “There are things out there that are working. If we continue to expand and amplify those, it could turn the tide.” —