VERMONT -- Never mind terrorism; hunger is a bigger threat to a growing number of Vermonters. A new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals that one in 10 Vermont families are now considered "food-insecure," meaning they lack the resources to adequately feed every family member. And since 1999 the number of Vermont households experiencing the "most severe" form of hunger -- when children in the family go without food -- has doubled, from 4100 to 8300 families. Vermont's dramatic hunger spike is the largest percentage increase of any state in the country.
"When my generation heard 'hunger,' we heard severe malnutrition and the distended bellies of the third world," says Robert Dostis, executive director of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. But with one in five children now going hungry or at daily risk of not having food, "To me, that is an epidemic."
Because most residents associate their agricultural state with bountiful food supplies for everyone, Vermont's hunger epidemic often goes unnoticed, Dostis explains. And because Vermont doesn't have a major metropolitan area with highly visible homeless people, the hungry often remain unseen to all but those who work in shelters and emergency food pantries.
Vermont's hunger numbers do appear relatively worse than in other states because of its small population, Dostis admits; the overall number of food-insecure people -- 55,000, which includes 21,000 children -- doesn't even rank the Green Mountain State in the top 10 nationally. Nonetheless, the USDA report is alarming to local anti-hunger advocates, who point out that Vermont's rate of hunger has gone up for five consecutive years. And the latest figures don't include 2005, when record fuel prices are making matters worse for families already on the edge of poverty.
Advocates at both the local and national level blame the usual culprits: wage stagnation, joblessness, underemployment and the rising cost of health care, housing and other essentials. But the hunger news comes as Congress has been debating major cuts to the federal food-stamp program. Sen. Patrick Leahy was able to eliminate $3 billion in cuts in the Senate version of the bill. But a House version, expected to be voted on this week, would cut $844 million from the program. According to Rep. Bernie Sanders' office, that would push 300,000 people off the food-stamp rolls.
It's too soon to predict how this would affect Vermont. What is known is that the state's demand for food stamps has risen by $10 million over four years -- to about $44 million today.
"That's a significant amount of money going directly to households to feed children," Dostis says. The problem, he adds, is that federal funds are still inadequate to meet the growing demand. The Bush administration points to local charities as a way of closing the gap, but food banks and emergency shelves are only able to meet a fraction of the need. The Vermont Food Bank distributes about $6 million in food annually; in comparison, Vermont's federal childhood nutrition programs provide between $60 and $70 million in meals per year.
School nutrition programs, which ensure that low-income kids get one or two good meals per day, have been "nickel-and-dimed" by the federal government for years, Dostis says. "As a result, you have schools selling candy and soda in order to supplement their meal program," he adds. "It's really ludicrous, when you consider the obesity epidemic and how we're trying to teach children about good nutrition."