Vt. anti-hunger advocates hope to maintain access, funding to food assistance after pandemic ends
A study put out by the University of Vermont last year found that food insecurity increased by about one-third during the pandemic.
And over the past year and a half, the state got millions of dollars in federal COVID relief money to help pay for food programs.
Now, with some of the COVID relief programs set to expire, anti-hunger advocates hope that some of the federal eligibility requirements that were relaxed during the pandemic are extended.
Cars were lining up about an hour before the Vermont Foodbank started distributing food at a site in Brattleboro recently.
It's a scene that's played out across the state as Vermonters, many of whom have never accepted food assistance before, found themselves in need.
By the end of the day, about 350 households received a box-load of staples like ground beef, yogurt and cereal through the Full Plate VT program, a food relief service that was started during the pandemic.
Priscilla Johnson, from Brattleboro, had a pretty good job before COVID, and then most of the staff got laid off at the building supply store she worked at.
She says the extra food she’s been picking up has helped.
“Oh my God, just a blessing in disguise. Absolute blessing in disguise,” she said. “You know, we just couldn’t make ends meet if we didn’t have this.”
Johnson says she’d never been to a food shelf before, or accepted any kind of food assistance.
“This is like, our first time ever in our lives, have to do this. But we’ve always worked until just this past year, so, this was a little difficult."
Her husband, who's a disabled vet, was sitting in the passenger seat, and he said it's been depressing to have to come out and line up for free food.
It's not something the couple ever thought they would have to do.
“This is like, our first time ever in our lives, have to do this,” said Johnson. “But we’ve always worked until just this past year, so, this was a little difficult, but I very appreciate it.”
And Johnson is hardly the only Vermonter who found herself relying on free food programs for the first time.
According to a UVM study, about two-thirds of those who responded to a survey said job loss was the main reason they found themselves seeking food assistance during the pandemic.
Katherine Brown, from Newfane, also lost her job last year at the manufacturing factory she worked at. For the past year or so, she’s become reliant on a number of food programs in Windham County.
When she was working, she says she was always able to make ends meet.
“It’s been really good that I’ve been able to put my funds elsewhere, keep my mortgage caught up by not having to necessarily go to the grocery store every day,” Brown said. “It’s been an excellent program.”
During the pandemic, the federal government relaxed most of the eligibility requirements for the new food programs.
“Typically with federal programs, there’s a lot of hoop jumping and red tape for people,” said Genna Williams, a project manager with the Vermont Foodbank.
Williams said because there were so few barriers to picking up the food, it made it easier for people who had not used federal food assistance before.
And she hopes some of those changes remain even after COVID.
“So people not having to go through those channels to access food makes it so much easier for people,” Williams said. “And it also creates less of a stigma, that we know that you need this food and we’re going to provide it for you. We’re not going to ask any qualifying questions. But, yeah, I think we’re advocating for the federal government to take lessons that they learned from this program and hopefully reduce the barriers to access for their other programs.”
The state’s senior meals program also saw big changes during the pandemic.
Congregate meals were shut down for a long time, and senior centers expanded their delivery services to reach older people at home.
That meant more money going toward packaging and deliveries.
Vermont received almost $4 million in federal COVID aid to support senior centers as they continue their meal deliveries, according to Conor O’Dea who’s with the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.
He wants to make sure that new programs and services can be maintained once that federal money runs out.
“What happens if this additional funding that we’ve been receiving, if it doesn’t get kept up with, and if we have to revert back to pre-pandemic funding levels?” O’Dea asks. “That’s the challenge of trying to figure out, how do we prepare ourselves for that.”
"We’re advocating for the federal government to take lessons that they learned from this program and hopefully reduce the barriers to access for their other programs.”
And Vermont’s school lunch program also expanded over the past year and a half.
The federal government relaxed the eligibility requirements during the pandemic, and Vermont schools have been handing out meals to any student who asks, regardless of their family’s income.
Anore Horton is with the group Hunger Free Vermont, and she wants the Legislature to pass a law that would extend that service.
“The waivers that are providing universal meals across the state now, they would end,” Horton said. “But our universal school meals program in Vermont would continue uninterrupted. And, you know, we would never have to place that burden of covering the cost of breakfast and lunch for kids in our schools back onto families struggling to make ends meet ever again.”
Back at the Brattleboro distribution site, the food bank kept loading up cars with free food.
Tracey Brooks had been trying to come out from her home in Brookline every week, and says she picked up food for a bunch of families that live in her neighborhood.
She says the extra food helped her get by, and she’s not sure what she, and her neighbors, will do to make ends meet with the program ending.
But she’s remaining hopeful.
“Hopefully things get better,” Brooks said. “Things are tough all around, you know, negativity isn’t going to make it better. Reach out and help who you can. Do the best you can. And go with what you can.”