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Hitting the trail to fight hunger

More than 200 walkers and hikers came out to the Catamount Outdoor Family Center last year to take part in Hunger Free Vermont's Hike for Hunger. This year, event leaders hope to raise $35,000 for the organization's work to address hunger and food insecurity in Vermont.
More than 200 walkers and hikers came out to the Catamount Outdoor Family Center last year to take part in Hunger Free Vermont’s Hike for Hunger. This year, event leaders hope to raise $35,000 for the organization’s work to address hunger and food insecurity in Vermont.

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

As some Williston residents struggle to put enough food on the table, their neighbors can take to the trails to help stamp out hunger in Vermont.

Hunger Free Vermont—an organization that works to address food insecurity in the state—is hosting its 18th annual Hike for Hunger Sept. 27 at the Catamount Outdoor Family Center.

“It is a great opportunity to bring the community together to celebrate all the hard work that is being done,” said Monica Taylor, donor relations manager at Hunger Free Vermont.

Last year, more than 200 supporters took part in the hike, which follows mostly flat trails for a 1.5- or 3-mile loop. Check-in begins at 9:30 a.m. Breakfast and a yoga warm-up are set for 10 a.m. and the hike begins at 10:30 a.m. After the hike, participants can take part in a community celebration with wood-fired pizza, live bluegrass music and more.

Hikers raise funds for Hunger Free Vermont’s work and awareness of food insecurity in Vermont—a state that many think is too affluent for such basic issues as hunger and malnutrition.

A study released earlier this month by the USDA shows that 13 percent of Vermont households—1 in 8—are food insecure. That means they don’t consistently have enough food or enough healthy food.

“Lack of affordable housing, low wages, high unemployment, a decrease in the number of local, affordable grocery stores, and lack of public transportation all contribute to hunger and food insecurity in Vermont,” according to Hunger Free Vermont.

A recent study by the Vermont Foodbank and Feeding America painted a bleaker picture: 1 in 4 Vermonters turn to food shelves and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families. Nearly 8 percent of the adults served are students. Eighteen percent live in households where someone has served in the military.

“Food insecurity really spans everybody in Vermont,” said Faye Conte, 3SquaresVT advocate with Hunger Free Vermont. “Folks of all ages and all education levels and wherever they live in Vermont are all struggling.”

Currently, 93,000 residents take part in 3SquaresVT, Vermont’s food stamp program, which Conte said provides an idea of the breadth of the issue.

The two groups most likely to be food insecure are families with children and seniors, Conte said.

One in five Vermont children experiences hunger or food hardship, according to Hunger Free Vermont. That means that a handful of children in every classroom in Williston live in food insecure homes.

Williston Community Food Shelf President Cathy Michaels said the first half of 2014 showed a steady increase in family visits, with an all-time high in July of 338 families.

“This accounts for close to 1,000 individuals for that month,” she said. “From that number, 145 were seniors served and 294 were children.”

The food shelf sees 10-15 new families a month.

“The picture of food insecurity is not getting any better,” Michaels said, pointing to “sobering statistics” about choices families are making between food and other basic needs like utilities, transportation, housing, education expenses and medicine or medicinal care.

“Food insecurity” may sound like bureaucratic jargon, but those in the industry said it’s a more accurate term than “hunger” for what faces families feeling the financial squeeze.

“When we think of hunger, I think a lot of people think about what they learned in elementary school and hunger in developing countries, which looks really different than hunger in America,” Conte said. “People are not necessarily starving.”

People may still be getting 2,000 calories a day, but they are struggling to acquire adequate amounts of the type of food they want to eat on a regular basis—what we think of as a nutritious diet.

Often, families struggling to put food on the table even look a little overweight, with obesity increasingly linked to hunger.

“They are definitely two sides of the same coin,” Taylor said.

That’s because the food that’s cheap and filling—and often federally subsidized and convenient—is highly processed and does not provide proper nutrition.

“It’s really expensive to eat well,” Taylor said. “Vegetables and fruit cost so much more than ramen noodles or a bag of chips.”

She said her organization hears from Vermonters who buy a 2-liter bottle of soda to get themselves through the day—fully aware that it has zero nutritional value, but reasoning that 1,000 calories for $1 is a worthwhile tradeoff.

Nearly 72 percent of client households studied by the Vermont Foodbank reported purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food as a coping strategy to get enough to eat.

“Malnutrition doesn’t look like what we all used to think it looks like,” Conte said. “Malnutrition can look like obesity.”

Conte said initiatives like the Hike for Hunger can help continue the conversation about food insecurity.

“Anybody can be food insecure. You might not know by looking at somebody if they’re struggling to put food on the table,” she said. “With something like the Hike for Hunger, we try to raise awareness and bring the community together to take collective action as a community to combat this issue.”

For more information, visit www.hungerfreevt.org.