Hunger hits hard in Vermont

Many Williston families struggling

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The percent of Vermont families experiencing the most severe category of hunger has doubled since 1999 – the largest state increase in the country, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Williston residents and those in neighboring towns are not immune to food supply struggles.

The report “drives home that many more families are having a more difficult time putting food on the table,” said Robert Dostis, executive director of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. “They’re diverting their limited resources to put towards fuel, health care, transportation, rent. As a result, there’s less money to buy food.”

According to the USDA report, nine percent of all Vermonters are “food insecure,” meaning that they are unable to consistently obtain enough safe and nutritious food. A subset of food insecure households, the percent of Vermonters who experience hunger, has doubled – from 1.8 percent in 1999-2001 to 3.6 percent in 2002-2004. According to a Center on Hunger and Poverty analysis of the USDA report, Vermont saw the most dramatic increase in household hunger – 100 percent.

Dostis notes the USDA study was done at a time when heating and transportation costs were not as high as they are now, meaning that currently there is even less money going toward food in food-insecure households.

Grasping the number of local residents impacted by hunger is difficult. The USDA report provides data only on a state-wide basis, so community-specific analysis is not possible. Anecdotal evidence, however, and statistics of emergency food access, food stamp usage and federal poverty level numbers tell part of the local story.

“I do receive calls here – what I would characterize as regularly – from people looking for food donations from this area,” said Thomas Davidson, pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Williston.

Sarah Barnett, administrative coordinator at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, said that 288 residents of Williston, Richmond and St. George received emergency groceries during the 2004 fiscal year, the most recent statistics available. Individuals and families may pick up a five-day supply of emergency groceries once a month; every third month they are eligible for a second pick-up.

Williston does not have its own food pantry, according to a town hall official. Outside of Burlington, Williston residents are served by the Heavenly Food Pantry located at the First Congregational Church of Essex Junction. The pantry provides fresh fruits and vegetables as well as canned goods and household supplies to an average of 58 families once each month. Between five and nine of those families are from Williston.

“We’re helping people be able to eat a little more healthy foods and we’re making sure that children can be fed,” said the pantry’s co-director, Mary Richer, “so that (parents) don’t have to make choices.”

Adele Quiet, one of five volunteers who run a food pantry at the Miscellany Mart in Richmond, said that hunger is hidden.

“We think the elderly will not come and ask for help,” Quiet said as an example. “We generally get people like workers who have lost their job suddenly and are running short on food.”

The Richmond food shelf provides a three-day supply once a month for three months, said Quiet, but that is about to change.

“We are expecting heavier use this winter because of the economic problems that people are having with fuel, heat and so forth,” she said.

Barnett noted several reasons why prevalence of local hunger is not well-understood.

“I think that people don’t want to believe it,” Barnett said, “because it doesn’t feel right with their community.” Nor do people understand the dynamics of poverty, she added.

“They look and they say ‘Okay, you have food stamps, so why do you need to use the food shelf?’” said Barnett. “Or ‘You’re working, so why do you need to use the food shelf?’” she said, quoting others. The lack of jobs in Vermont paying a livable wage, said Barnett, means that many working people must use food shelf or state services in order to meet the gap.

Dostis said that while it is important that people are generous for holidays like Thanksgiving, “the rest of the year is important, too. We need to make sure kids get meals every day, not just during the holidays.”

For more information or to donate to the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, call 658-7939; for The Heavenly Food Pantry, call 878-5745; for the Richmond food pantry, call 434-2421.