Hunger in Vermont: Plenty of Food, but Still Falling Short

by Nat Frothingham

In putting together this “Food and Farming” issue, The Bridge talked with three people on the front lines of the current effort to address local hunger problems.

These three people are:  Judy Stermer, director of communications with the Vermont Foodbank; Joseph Kiefer, food justice consultant; and Justin Turcotte, chef at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center and owner of Good Taste Catering.

All three agreed that hunger problems in Vermont aren’t new. All three agreed that hunger problems are growing. All three agreed that what we’re doing now is applying Band-aids and patching. Handing out food and money right now can save lives and provide immediate help. But handouts are also creating dependency. And handouts are failing to address fundamental hunger problems.

Judy Stermer, Vermont Foodbank

Judy Stermer’s comments included a declaration and a question. Her declaration: “Food is our most basic human need.” Her question: “Where is the political will to end hunger?”

Stermer provided the following statistics.

According to the “Hunger in America 2014 Report” the food bank is currently serving 153,000 people a year. “That’s 153,000 separate or unique visitors,” Stermer pointed out. 

Drawing her information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Stermer said, “We know that about 84,000 people in Vermont are food insecure.  We also know,” she said, “that more people are using the charitable food system to get by at the end of the month.”

The end of the month can be a tough time for those in need. Said Stermer, quoting again from the report — 63 percent of the (food bank’s) clients are having to choose between food and heating expenses at the end of the month.”

So how might we describe the people who are getting helped by the Vermont Foodbank?

They might be working at minimum wage and living from paycheck to paycheck. They’re likely to be the first to lose their jobs during a recession and the last to get re-employed, Shermer said.

“People aren’t hungry because there isn’t enough food. They’re hungry because they don’t have jobs that pay a decent living. Because of wealth disparity; because of poverty. We need business leaders, political leaders, elected officials, everyone, to start caring about this issue,” Shermer said.

Joseph Kiefer, food justice consultant

Once under Gov. Madeleine Kunin and twice under Gov. James Douglas, Joseph Kiefer has served on the Vermont Task Force on Hunger.

“We have managed and maintained hunger as we know it,” said Kiefer about what the state has achieved with its anti-hunger initiatives.

Kiefer, along with Joseph Gainza, was one of the co-founders of the Vermont Foodbank in 1983. “It’s a necessary component of hunger relief. But it’s not the solution,” Kiefer said.

Quoting the familiar adage, Kiefer said, “If you give someone a fish, they eat for the day. If you teach someone to fish, they eat for a lifetime. Internationally, food aid hasn’t solved hunger problems, it’s created dependence. We need to look at food aid. Is food aid really teaching people how to grow, preserved, store food?”

In our history as a rural, agricultural state, Kiefer said, we created a locally-based food system and elders passed along their knowledge to younger people. “Now we’re decades off the land and we’re highly dependent. Increasingly, as well, we’re afflicted with diet-related diseases. We have rampant diabetes, heart disease, rampant obesity.”

“People want a quick fix: A check for $100,” Kiefer said. “They want a hand-out of food. That will make people feel good.  But when those cans of food are open and empty, there’s no knowledge or experience. Instead, there’s only growing poverty and income inequality: limited resources and limited amounts trickling down.” Kiefer said that the current Band-aid approach to dealing with hunger is short-term. “We’re being fooled if we think those are solutions.  Those are bandages over an ever-worsening crisis,” he said.

Kiefer is currently involved with a Good Food/Good Medicine project through a nonprofit organization in Barre. The project includes these activities: year-round gardening, cooking, nutrition, herbalism and leadership development. “It’s all about the power of food. Our focus is diabetes prevention. Most of the people who work with us have diabetes. How do we re-think our diets?”

As he looks out more broadly at the entire state, Kiefer is advocating mandatory community service beginning at pre-school all the way to high school and college. “We could become the food state,” he said. “We could champion food self-sufficiency and food self-reliance.”

Justin Turcotte, senior center chef and owner of Good Taste Catering

Justin Turcotte said people are hungry — not just for food — but for quality food. “Our industrial food is covered with condiments. When you eat whole foods, you are satisfied.”

“It’s not enough to turn up at a meal and eat. It’s being around food when it’s being prepared. It’s sitting at a table with friends and family. There are a lot of people who are well fed, but are still hungry,” Turcotte said. “You’ve got heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension. These are self-inflicted. People are overeating because the food is not satisfying. For thousands of years, we were around cooking. People are hungry to be part of the food preparation. The more people can get involved in making and preparing food, the less hungry they will be.” Turcotte has observed people who continue to eat even after they’ve had enough food. “Your stomach is not empty and you keep eating. Is this a need for more calories, or is it an emotional need?”

“Parents aren’t spending the time cooking,” said Turcotte. “Whole generations of kids don’t know how to prepare food.” Instead people are purchasing food they can’t afford and that isn’t satisfying.

Turcotte then discussed the value of the dining experience. At the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, people who participate in the lunch program get “a proper plate, a proper knife, fork and spoon.” He said that setting the table is part of the experience. “This goes back thousands of years. This is in our DNA.” The quality of the food — local, organic, fresh — and the place settings are all important to what good properly prepared food produces in better health and greater enjoyment.