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As COVID-19 Surges, A New Study Suggests Hunger Is At A Record High

Volunteer Serves Food to Driver
The Vermont Food Bank, Courtesy
/
A volunteer offers low contact produce pickup through the Vermont Food Banks Veggie VanGo program in April. A new study suggests hunger is at an all time high in Vermont.

We all know this year's Thanksgiving holiday was unusual, to say the least, due to COVID-19. The prevalence of the virus kept many of us from traveling or welcoming big gatherings to the family table this year.It's also making worse a problem that is with us every year, and that's the number of people in Vermont who struggle to get enough to eat. That number has been rising during the pandemic.

A recent UVM Gund Institute survey reveals that now nearly one-third of Vermonters say they're having trouble putting food on the table and are food insecure.

Are you facing hunger this Thanksgiving? These resources can help:

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, about what is being done to address food insecurity in Vermont.

Mitch Wertlieb: So those latest numbers that I mentioned, from the Gund Institute, the UVM survey: nearly one-third in Vermont are struggling to put enough food on the table. Does that square with what the food bank is seeing?

John Sayles: Absolutely. You know, there's been a lot of additional resources out there – the Farmers to Families Food Box program and the Everyone Eats restaurant program.

In addition to that, the foodbank has seen almost a doubling of the number of people coming to our Veggie VanGo fresh food distributions. And we've been hearing from, you know, the 300 network partners – the food shelves and meal sites across the state – that they're still seeing an increased number of people coming through and needing help.

More from VPR: Brattleboro Benefits From ‘Everyone Eats’

Is there enough food then to go around?

Right now, there is. The Farmers to Families Food Box program is almost a million pounds of food a month coming into the state. And then, there's the tens-of-thousands of Everyone Eats restaurant meals. So there's not a shortage of food right now.

Really, the challenge is the logistics of getting it to people where they need it and when they need it.

What are some of those logistical challenges?

Well, you need, you know, refrigerated trucks to move food around – fresh food around.

Our partners, you know, the food shelves in communities across the state are mostly peopled by volunteers. And it's challenging.

You know, a lot of those volunteers are older adults and are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus. People can't come in to the food shelves anymore, so there's pre-bagging going on and deliveries to cars. There's been a lot of home delivery happening.

"I would just really encourage people to please reach out and use what's available right now, because that's why it's here." - John Sayles, CEO, Vermont Foodbank

If somebody is listening to this right now, saying, ‘You know what, I really want to help,’ if you had to tell them what the thing that you need them to do, that would help us most, would be… can you fill in the blank?

It's going to be financial resources, donations – both to your local organizations and to the Vermont Foodbank. We work in unison.

And while there's a lot of food right now, there's kind of a cliff coming up in January, where all these federal resources go away.

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So something like Everyone Eats, which is a state run program, where the state actually pays restaurants to cook meals; farmers to families you mentioned, that's a USDA box of food program – are you a little bit worried about those programs running into financial trouble?

Those programs are all funded through the CARES Act, and all that money has to be spent by Dec. 31 and then it just – poof – goes away. So there will be no more resources from the federal government unless Congress acts.

Guilty-as-charged here, because you know that every year around the holidays, folks in media organizations call you up and say, ‘Hey, can we talk about food insecurity?’

I'd like for you to talk a little bit about the need year-round beyond the holidays, because this doesn't go away, this problem, once the holidays end.

Absolutely not, and it's very related to people's incomes. Food insecurity is literally financial insecurity. There’s no shortage of food in the grocery store; it's just that people don't have the money to purchase enough of the nourishing food that they need.

The issue is particularly poignant right now because of COVID, and unemployment is directly related to food insecurity.

We saw a huge spike when, you know, there were 70,000 people applying for unemployment in Vermont.

Now we know that, while the unemployment rate is lower in Vermont, the number of people who are no longer considered unemployed because they're not looking for work is also very, very high. So we're not seeing a decrease in the need with the decrease in unemployment.

And I'm very concerned, with this new surge in coronavirus cases and the closing down of restaurants and other activities, that more people are going to be losing jobs again. And we're going to see another surge in need. And that's going to come just at the time when we're seeing the cliff in federal resources.

More from VPR: Living On A Tight Budget — And Finding The 'Silver Lining — During COVID-19

I wonder if, just anecdotally speaking, you're already seeing incidents of people coming to the food bank or needing food help that did not need it before.

Absolutely.

We did have some research early on, that about 40% of the people – say between March and September – who were receiving food assistance, had never been part of the food system before and never reached out for help.

So we know that there are a lot of folks where this is their first time going through this. And it's hard. It's really hard. So I would just really encourage people to please reach out and use what's available right now, because that's why it's here.

One thing I want to make sure that people know is there is a sustainable food security system out there that works really well and it's available all year-round and it won't end in January. And that's 3Squares Vermont. And if people are struggling or feel like they don't have enough money to buy food, we really encourage people to do that.

It will give them the ability to get some extra money to go to the store and buy the food that they want and need for their families.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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