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Roughly One-Third of Vermonters Need Food Assistance During the Pandemic

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Vermont National Guard members distributing MREs in South Hero - PHOTOS: JAMES BUCK
  • Photos: James Buck
  • Vermont National Guard members distributing MREs in South Hero

On a dreary Friday morning in early May, a dozen or so members of the Vermont National Guard assembled in a South Hero parking lot to hand out cases of government food. The soldiers relayed the boxes from pallet to car — Volvo wagon, Honda Pilot, Subaru Outback — with underhand tosses. They wished the drivers well as they packed the premade meals in trunks and hatchbacks.

Jeremy Pratt arrived in his gold 2010 Chrysler Town and Country to pick up seven cases of food, one for each member of his Milton family. Pratt lost his job in late December, and the coronavirus pandemic has stymied his search for work. His wife's medical disability check provides the family income.

"We pay all our bills first, and we make do on whatever we have left," he said. "Food and gas, whatever."

Pratt took home 112 of the 577,000 MREs (meals, ready to eat) the Guard and the Vermont Foodbank have distributed since the pandemic shut down much of the state's economy in late March.

Demand for MREs was greater than expected — replenishments had to be trucked in to the first site, and dates were added. But advocates say the virus has exposed the fact that many Vermonters live a paycheck or two away from needing help to feed their families.

"When we have 600 cars showing up in Swanton to pick up MREs, which, let's face it, are not the tastiest meals you can imagine, we have a serious problem in Vermont that is not just because of the last few weeks of COVID-19," said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.

Last year, 150,000 Vermonters sought food from the state's network of food banks and meal sites, according to John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank. About 40 percent of the people served by the charitable system aren't eligible for 3SquaresVT, the federal food program that provided benefits to about 39,000 Vermont households before the pandemic struck.

Since the outbreak, the need for food assistance has soared. The Foodbank and its partners are on pace to serve roughly 240,000 Vermonters this year — more than one-third of the state's population.

"The Foodbank ... wasn't designed to do mass feeding," Sayles told a Statehouse committee last month. "It wasn't designed to feed a third, more or less, of the state of Vermont ... I just don't think it's fair to rely on the food shelves and meal sites to pick up slack here."

Yet mass feeding is precisely what the Barre-based nonprofit and its community partners are undertaking and poised to continue for some time to come.

"Since the Foodbank was started [in the mid-1980s], this is the most severe onset of challenges for people in getting food that we've seen," Sayles said. "I don't see it letting up anytime soon."

Food shelves are expecting to see people they haven't served before — Vermonters who are spending down their money before they seek charity. "Most people don't want to ask for help until, in effect, they're desperate," Sayles said.

To address the immediate crisis, the state and federal governments and charitable groups have taken a number of steps.

Every Vermonter age 18 and younger — regardless of family income — has been made eligible for free breakfast and lunch. Application requirements for 3SquaresVT have been relaxed. Schools are delivering food to bus stops near students' homes. Feeding Chittenden, the hunger-relief nonprofit in Burlington, has prepared up to 9,000 meals a week for people living in emergency housing. It's providing groceries to 40 percent more customers than before the pandemic.

"We're supposed to exist to help bridge that gap [in the safety net]," executive director Rob Meehan said. "It turns out we are the safety net."

Living on the Edge

Jeremy and Jennifer Pratt and their five children with cases of MREs - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Jeremy and Jennifer Pratt and their five children with cases of MREs

A wide variety of Vermonters is seeking help. At the South Hero MRE giveaway, a 76-year-old Jericho man got food for his kids and grandkids and "a couple of older people in the neighborhood." A Grand Isle County truck driver, newly unemployed, picked up a case. At Feeding Chittenden a few days earlier, Tshewang Tamang, a housekeeper at Fanny Allen Health Care, sought groceries for his family of five. Since his two adult children lost their jobs due to the pandemic, he is the only employed member of his household.

In Vermont and around the country, many people "live on the edge," said Daniel Krymkowski, a University of Vermont professor of sociology who studies inequality.

The federal government's definition of poverty — an income of $26,200 for a family of four — is a "joke," he said, and "vastly understates the precarious nature of the economic situation of many people."

Vermont's statewide poverty rate is 11 percent, according to the U.S. Census. But in pockets of the state, including Burlington and Barre, a quarter of the population lives in poverty.

"You tell me how a family of four can live on $25,000," Krymkowski said.

The feds use a more generous standard to determine eligibility for food benefits, known in Vermont as 3SquaresVT. A family of four can earn up to 185 percent of the poverty level, or a gross income of $47,652, and qualify.

But Krymkowski cited a January 2019 report by the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office that put at twice that level the annual pretax income necessary for a "basic needs budget" for an urban family of four in Vermont.

"There's not a lot of resilience [for people] to deal with a crisis like the coronavirus," he said.

Pratt, the unemployed Milton dad, said that, despite their financial setbacks, his family is getting by with some help.

He has five kids, ages 15 to 7, three of whom live with him and his wife, Jennifer, all the time. Two live with them every other week.

His wife's medical disability benefit leaves the family below the poverty level, Pratt said, but he called it a "saving grace." The family lives in subsidized housing. For a while a few years ago, the Pratts received 3SquaresVT. But the benefit kept getting cut, and the burden of filing the paperwork wasn't worth it, he said.

"It was too much hassle for the little it was doing," Pratt said.

The kids get two meals a day delivered by the school bus driver through the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded school lunch program. The driver puts the food in a cooler that Pratt leaves on the roadside at the bus stop.

"I've been surprised but also amazed by how well everything's been going with that," Pratt said. "The school system stepped it up, and the bus drivers are doing their thing."

Pratt's kids usually eat the hot lunch — chicken breasts, corn and tater tots — right after delivery and save breakfast for the next morning. They each get two cartons of milk, plain and chocolate.

Pratt shops at the supermarket but also relies on groceries from the local food shelf. His extended family helps out, he said. He and his wife and kids eat "basic things" — spaghetti, cheeseburgers, sandwiches. Once a week, Pratt makes a dessert treat for the kids.

"We've had to cut our expenses down since I lost the job," he said, but insisted his family will be OK. "We've been definitely making it through."

Though the school meal program is working for the Pratt family, not all Vermont youth are getting the two meals a day intended for them. Students who live in districts where they must pick up the meals at a central site are more likely to miss out on them, according to the Vermont Agency of Education.

Burlington, the state's largest school district, is serving about 1,600 meals a day at pickup sites, roughly half the tally of when school is in session, according to Doug Davis, the district's director of food service. That number is expected to rise later this month when the district adds a third meal, supper, at some sites, he said.

"Our goal is to make sure that students have the nutrition that they need," Davis said.

Families from other towns can pick up food in Burlington if that's convenient, Davis added, noting that it's a federal program. No questions are asked, no IDs required.

Due to the pandemic, families aren't the only ones needing food assistance. Eric George, a 29-year-old Burlington musician, receives free meals from a different source, ShiftMeals. Started by the local restaurant chain Skinny Pancake, ShiftMeals provides food to laid-off restaurant workers, musicians, gig workers and others in need.

In its first five weeks, ShiftMeals made and served 4,549 meals, according to the Skinny Pancake. This month ShiftMeals is expanding, in partnership with the Vermont Foodbank, to provide 20,000 meals to food-insecure residents.

George lives with seven housemates in a multiunit building in the Old North End. He's been playing music at Skinny Pancake since he was an anthropology major at UVM. He heard about ShiftMeals through an email from the restaurant.

"It's been very helpful," he said, adding that his roommates also get ShiftMeals. "We're all in the same situation, and having access to that food has been wonderful."

George's last gig was in early March at a nursing home in St. Albans. He's been trying to get unemployment benefits and, with his roommates, hopes to negotiate with the landlord about the rent.

"What income we do have saved up is for grocery runs," George said. The big garden out back will help with food in a couple of months. He isn't looking beyond that.

"There's so much I don't know about the future right now," he said. "I just can't let myself spiral into uncertainty."

'To solve The Present Crisis'

Eric George getting free meals from ShiftMeals at the Skinny Pancake - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Eric George getting free meals from ShiftMeals at the Skinny Pancake

Krymkowski, the UVM professor, said the present crisis can and should be solved by the federal government. The resources exist, he said.

"In the most wealthy country in the history of the world," Krymkowski commented, "I would like to know why anyone at any time, and at any place, should have to worry about being hungry."

Hunger relief experts agree the government should take more action.

"If we wanted to bring things closer to normal as quickly as possible, the federal government would double the 3SquaresVT [benefit] and increase by 30 to 40 percent people who are eligible," Sayles said.

In the meantime, Vermonters are helping each other navigate the situation, even as traditional means of helping to feed hungry people — church meals, cooking classes — are disallowed due to social distancing.

On a recent afternoon at Feeding Chittenden, Anne Clift of Jericho, a teacher at Vermont Adult Learning, picked up groceries for three of her students. It was the first time in 10 years of teaching English to speakers of other languages that Clift had helped her students access food, she said.

"It's not a question that I usually ask a student, unless I really suspect a problem," Clift, 65, said. "When the pandemic came up, I knew them well enough that I could ask information like that."

Two members of the family for whom she got food had lost their housekeeping jobs at a nursing home due to COVID-19, Clift said.

"They don't have a car. They don't drive. They don't live close to the food shelf," she added. "So it's like a tornado there."

For Vermont Foodbank's Sayles and his colleagues, a time of crisis is also a time of opportunity, he said.

Now is the time to "show people the reality of what hunger means in Vermont and in the country," Sayles said. "It's people who are living paycheck to paycheck, and there are lots of them."

It's an opportunity, as well, to set up new and different methods to help meet people's needs — ones that are more "respectful and dignified" than lining up for a load of MREs.

"Frankly," Sayles said, "it's not my preference that we're having people drive up to parking lots and open their trunks."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Hunger Crisis | Roughly one-third of Vermonters need food assistance during the pandemic"

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