June Featured Community Partner – Vermont Foodbank

The Vermont Foodbank, our featured community partner for the month of June, is Vermont’s largest hunger relief organization. Since 1986, they have been responding to the problems of food insecurity and the need for supplemental food assistance among food insecure households in central Vermont. Now with a network of 215 food shelves, meal sites, senior centers, and after-school programs, they provide food to families, children, older adults, and individuals at schools and hospitals across the state. Through their wide range of programs, they provide nutritious food and promote health, while becoming nationally recognized as one of the most effective and efficient nonprofits and food banks in the country.

We spoke with Mica Seely, the Foodbank’s Corporate & Community Philanthropy Manager, to find out more about their programs and the impressive, widespread impact they’ve had. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Since it began, how has the Foodbank changed and grown?

In recent years, the Vermont Foodbank has shifted its focus to the types of food we provide in order to meet the evolving needs of Vermont’s food insecure population. Increasingly, the Foodbank has distributed more fresh food each year, especially produce. There are several reasons for this shift, the first being a desire to address the root causes of hunger in Vermont. Studies have shown that there are definite, clear links between food insecurity and poor health, and the Vermont Foodbank’s own research highlights the challenges our clients face when it comes to health and hunger. Another significant reason for our increased focus on fresh food is an increasing demand from our clients, i.e. those persons in Vermont who struggle with food insecurity. The Vermont Foodbank’s 215 network partner food shelves, meal sites, etc., constantly collect and provide feedback on the attitudes of clients. Notably, there has been a significant change in the attitudes of food insecure persons, who seem to share a growing preference for healthier, more varied food options. In a 2016 Vermont Foodbank customer satisfaction survey, 96 network partners ranked “meat, poultry, fish” and “fresh fruits and vegetables” as the first and second most important types of food valued by their clients.

When our main facility in Barre was built in 2001, we distributed 2.6 million pounds of shelf-stable food, and no produce. Since that time, the demand for fresh food has significantly increased. In 2018, the Foodbank distributed approximately 12.1 million pounds of food, of which 2.3 million pounds were fresh fruits and vegetables. Over the past six years alone, we have tripled the amount of produce distributed.

How have the problems of and related to hunger in our state changed in that time?

Here are some recent stories that illustrate this struggle:

  • Candace and her husband live with her parents (both in poor health) and their three children in Rutland County. Her husband works full time, but with seven mouths to feed now it’s barely enough to get by. Candace says they’ve often had to choose between buying food and medicine, and sometimes, she and her husband skip meals altogether so her parents can eat.
  • During the school year, Teresa can provide her children with enough, but in the summer it gets frightening. ‘It seems to cost me ten times more to feed them since they’re not receiving free breakfast and lunch,’ she says. To make up for it, they all skip breakfast and she feeds them what she can for lunch. Unfortunately, she often has to feed them unhealthy food, because she just doesn’t have the money to get the fresh foods that they eat during the school year.
  • Don, from southern Vermont, needed a heart transplant. His doctor told him he wasn’t healthy or strong enough to get on the transplant list and that the first step was to change his diet. Don lost his job because his illness made it impossible to work, and is now living on $57 a month. He simply couldn’t afford the fruit, vegetables, and other healthy food he desperately needed in order to qualify for a new heart. Fortunately, he heard about the Foodbank’s fresh produce deliveries and he started attending every single one in his area. Over time, his improved diet began to make a difference, and his doctor agreed to add him to the transplant list.

What should people know about hunger in our state? What should they be aware of that they might not be?

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, more than one in eight Vermont households are food insecure. However, the Foodbank serves more than 153,000 people each year, including nearly 34,000 children and 26,000 seniors, indicating that hunger and poverty in Vermont are more prevalent than official numbers suggest. The reasons are varied but typically include under-employment, low wages, high cost of living, emergencies, job loss, poor health, and chronic illness.

Studies show clear links between food insecurity and poor health. A food-insecure household uses coping strategies, including choosing between food and medicine or being forced to consume cheaper foods high in calories but low in nutritional value. Reliance on less healthy foods leads to toxic stress, poor nutrition, and chronic diet-related diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. In turn, these chronic illnesses worsen existing conditions, result in inability to work and increased healthcare costs, further restricting the household food budget.

We see this right here in Vermont every day. Of the individuals who access our services: 71.8% purchase inexpensive, unhealthy food because they cannot afford healthier options; 63% make decisions between purchasing medication or food monthly; 56% choose between paying for food and paying for utilities; 46% of households have a member with high blood pressure; 23% of households have a member with diabetes.

Food distribution is a major function of the Foodbank. How does the Foodbank find or connect with those partners? Is there a large variety in the type of partners you work with?

At the core of the Foodbank’s operation is the procurement and the distribution of high quality, nutritious food to our 215 Network Partner agencies (NPs), who will then directly distribute this food to individuals and families in need. These NPs include food shelves and pantries in churches, community centers or as stand-alone facilities; community meal sites; senior and child care centers; and emergency shelters. All members pay a nominal fee for the service, and are instructed in safe food handling procedures, as per Feeding America guidelines. Our inventory is available online, and is updated regularly, so NPs can be assured they are receiving what they order. We provide as wide a choice of nutritious foods as we are able, given our sources, which includes a national co-op buying system, agreements with regional distributors, salvage from local supermarkets, and gleaned produce from Vermont farms.

Food items are gathered chiefly via donations from large grocery retailers and wholesalers in Vermont and nationwide; and by purchasing food through a cooperative buying arrangement organized by Feeding America, a national network of more than 200 food banks. Food is also “rescued” from a variety of sources including small retailers and farms, and gleaned from local farms through the Foodbank’s volunteer-based agricultural gleaning program.

Food is initially gathered from grocery stores, food manufacturers, farms, businesses, restaurants, individuals, the federal government and Feeding America.  We also partner with Vermont farms and orchards to obtain more fresh, local produce through our Gleaning Program and Pick for Your Neighbor.

How widespread is your food distribution? What are the demographics of the populations you distribute to?  

We distribute millions of pounds of food from our three regional distribution facilities. In addition to directly distributing food to network partners, we manage two federal food distribution programs: the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). We also distribute food through distribution programs like BackPack and VeggieVanGo.

According to the Hunger in America study done in 2014,1 in 4 people, or an estimated 153,000 people, in Vermont turn to food shelves and meal service programs to feed themselves and their families. This includes 33,900 children and 26,010 seniors. More information and statistics from that study can be found here.

What is the VeggieVanGo program?

The Vermont Foodbank’s VeggieVanGo events are kind of like pop-up farmer’s markets at six schools and ten hospitals across the state. They not only provide an opportunity for participants to bring home fresh produce, they also create a gathering place that offers support and conversations about healthy food. Our truck arrives with large bins of thousands of pounds of fresh food and, with the help of our amazing volunteers, we provide produce to hundreds of families and individuals in need each month. Through this program we expect to distribute 2 million pounds of fresh food to our neighbors facing hunger this year.

Along with healthy, fresh food, VeggieVanGo provides education and outreach to improve food security. In partnership with our VT Fresh program, we offer cooking demos, and taste tests of the vegetables available, paired with recipes and cooking tips. Our SNAP outreach team is also at the ready to assist participants with information about 3SquaresVT and provide application assistance.

The school sites are open to families and/or caregivers that have students within the school districts, but the hospital sites are open to anyone in those communities experiencing food insecurity. Folks can call the Foodbank to learn more about when and where these events take place.

What is the BackPack Program?

In partnership with schools located in high-need communities, our BackPack program helps Vermont’s children struggling with hunger to enjoy their weekends free from worry, by filling their backpacks each Friday during the school year with tasty, easy-to-prepare food items that are high in nutritional value. During the 2017-2018 school year, the Foodbank served 146,201 pounds of food to 1,353 participants in 31 schools across the state. Survey results revealed that 75% of children benefitting from the BackPack program reported not having to worry as much about having enough food at home. During the 2018-2019 school year, the Foodbank will provide 1,650 schoolchildren with 178,000+ pounds of food at 33 schools through this program.

Can you tell me about your gleaning program and the impact it has had?

The Vermont Foodbank operates the state’s largest gleaning program. Gleaning is the act of harvesting excess fruits and vegetables from farm fields. Oftentimes, the produce is top quality, but other times it may be irregularly shaped or has small blemishes. The Foodbank’s Gleaning Program works with over 600 volunteers to harvest and gather produce that may otherwise go to waste. This type of food rescue enables the Foodbank to provide healthy, local food to Vermonters who are at risk of hunger.

We work with approximately 80 farms throughout the state. We glean with the help of volunteers primarily in the Chittenden County region and the greater Brattleboro area.  Our drivers pick up produce from farms across the state on a regular basis. We are happy to work with farmers to schedule a pick-up or coordinate gleaning efforts in the fields. If you are a farmer and have a large amount of produce already harvested and ready to be picked up, please call us!

How does Vermonters Feeding Vermonters work?

To increase the amount and quality of fresh, healthy food that we distribute, the Vermont Foodbank has created Vermonters Feeding Vermonters, a program to purchase high quality fruits and vegetables directly from Vermont growers to distribute to Vermonters facing hunger. The Foodbank and farmers agree upon a quantity, price, and delivery schedule prior to the growing season. During the harvest season, farmers provide regular deliveries to one of our three branches (Barre, Brattleboro, Rutland). Foodbank staff then distribute the produce to Vermonters facing hunger through our existing channels, including the VeggieVanGo program, and through our 215 partner food shelves, meal sites, senior centers and after school programs.  Last year was our pilot year, and we purchased 205,000 lbs. of local produce (21 different types), the equivalent of 615,000 servings of fresh food. Because of this, we were able to put $268,000 back into the local economy. Currently, we purchase fruits and vegetables, but we hope to expand to meat, dairy, and eggs in future years.

Is there a program you wish more people knew about or utilized?

The Foodbank’s 3SquaresVT outreach and application assistance program helps to ensure that all eligible, food-insecure households in Vermont can gain access to what has been one of the most effective hunger alleviation programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (known as 3SquaresVT here in Vermont). As successful as this program is, it is unfortunate that the entry barriers are so high. Many low-income Vermonters choose not to participate, as the process and paperwork are considerable and confusing. The Foodbank serves as the navigator in this system, helping eligible Vermonters complete the applications and monitor them through the approval process. Since the program began in 2013, we have helped more than 1,000 food insecure people gain entry into the program. In 2019, the Vermont Foodbank estimates its staff will assist in the completion of 265 SNAP applications, the equivalent of 179,357 SNAP meals. 75% of program participants will report that they were satisfied with the help they received to complete and submit a 3SquaresVT application.

For more information, simply text VFBSNAP to 85511 to see if you may be eligible.* You can also reach the 3SquaresVT team by phone at 802-477-4136 or toll-free 855-855-6181.

Can you tell me about your other food access initiatives, like CKA and VT Fresh? How successful are those? What is their impact?

The Vermont Foodbank’s Community Kitchen Academy (CKA), now in its ninth year of operation, provides culinary and job placement support for under- and-unemployed individuals. The program, operated in partnership between the Foodbank and two of the state’s largest network action agencies, the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington and Capstone Community Action in Barre, has graduated 295 students, and boasts a 90% average job placement rate. In addition, CKA students have utilized “rescued” produce to create more than 559,358 meal servings that are provided directly to food shelf clients on a daily basis. The use of rescued food reduces waste and increases the amount of product the VF is able to source and make available to those in need. 

Low-income Vermonters are at higher risk of poor nutrition, so the Foodbank is working to fill the gap by providing more fresh fruits and vegetables and nutrition education through its VT Fresh program. To achieve the goal of increased fresh produce consumption, we conduct cooking demonstrations and taste tests held at the partner food shelves. These generate interest in fresh produce among food shelf visitors and provide them with the knowledge to incorporate these items into their diets. In the past year, we hosted 247 demos at 28 food shelves for more than 5,725 participants, who have now been exposed to nutritious fruits and vegetables and methods of preparation. More than 35,000 pounds of produce were distributed to food shelves for VT Fresh participants to take home with them. Survey results showed that 72% of VT Fresh participants indicated an improved attitude/taste preference for fruits and vegetables. In the current fiscal year, we expect to hold 280 demos, with 5,000 participants receiving 35,000 pounds of fresh food. We also assist partner food shelves in securing the resources needed, such as refrigeration units, to receive and store fresh fruits and vegetables.

How can people get involved and support the Foodbank’s work?

Give time by volunteering at one of our distribution facilities in Barre, Brattleboro or Rutland or come outside and glean! Gleaning is a fun, family-friendly volunteer opportunity and a great way to spend time on our beautiful Vermont farms. Some people make it a routine to glean every week, and others lend a hand once or twice a season. Additionally, we are happy to host large school, corporate or community groups and can schedule dates months in advance. Visit our website to sign up. https://www.vtfoodbank.org/give-time/volunteer

Give money by making a direct donation to the Foodbank or set up a fundraiser to benefit our work. Your gift will help give food and hope to kids, families, and older adults struggling with hunger in Vermont. The need always increases over the summer when kids are out of school and can no longer depend on school breakfast and lunch.

Give your voice. The Vermont Foodbank and food banks across the country are working to fight hunger in America. We believe that hunger is unacceptable and while the Foodbank is working to ensure our neighbors are fed today, we believe we must all engage our elected officials in the work of ending hunger into the future. To learn more, visit https://www.vtfoodbank.org/give-your-voice/advocacy