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Food insecurity in Vermont reached all-time highs during the pandemic. Then came inflation

Man packs box with non-perishables
The Vermont Food Bank, Courtesy
A volunteer, seen here in this file photo, packs boxes with non-perishables at the Vermont Foodbank. As inflation causes food, fuel and other prices to rise, food banks in the state say they have higher demand than ever. At the same time, they say federal funds are drying up.

Vermont food banks say they are seeing an increase in the number of people in need of services, driven in part by inflation and the high cost of living.

This comes on the heels of the pandemic, when Vermont experienced record-high levels of food insecurity.

The Vermont Foodbank, which is the state’s largest anti-hunger organization, said increased need can be measured by the number of households that are served at the fresh food direct distribution sites. Over the past three months, the average number of households per month is 8,280 compared to 5,694 households a month during the same period in 2020.

According to the organization, before the pandemic, the Foodbank was distributing about 11 million pounds of food, whereas at the height of the pandemic they were distributing roughly 20 million.

Additionally, increased costs at the Foodbank are tied to the heightened price of items such as fuel, eggs and frozen vegetables. For example, in egg purchases over the last year, the Foodbank saw a 62.9% increase in spending, according to their data.

More from Vermont Public: 'Tough pill to swallow': Vermont food groups dial back on assistance as federal funds expire

Like many local businesses, Vermont Foodbank is also dealing with staffing shortages.

“It’s just hard to find people,” said CEO John Sayles.

These staffing shortages come at a difficult time, he said. The amount of work that the food bank is doing has increased dramatically since COVID hit, and three years into the pandemic, the organization’s COVID relief money has begun to dry up.

Since March 2020, Vermont Foodbank has received millions of dollars in grant money from the federal government including from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, and ARPA, the American Rescue Plan Act.

Among this surge of federal resources was another program called the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) that helped source federal commodities, such as meat, eggs, produce and pasta, into food banks around the country.

“We're kind of hitting a TEFAP cliff right now,” Sayles said, “and we're going to see about a 40% decline in the amount of that federal food coming in through Vermont.”

Without these resources, Sayles said that the pressure is now on for the organization to be able to secure enough food to continue serving Vermonters at the scope that they have been.

“We're going to have to scale back, particularly on our food purchasing and our grant making to our partners, as the money coming through the feds in the state starts to dwindle,” he said.

Sayles said that scaling back will be a challenge due to the food bank's increased levels of spending since pre-COVID.

“[W]e're going to see about a 40% decline in the amount of that federal food coming in through Vermont.”
John Sayles, Vermont Foodbank CEO

This “TEFAP cliff” could potentially affect smaller food shelves such as Upper Valley Haven, the second largest food shelf in Vermont.

Michael Redmond is the executive director of the Haven. He says that the pandemic has been both an opportunity and a challenge for the food shelf.

Before the pandemic, households could go to the food shelf once a month to get items such as packaged goods, meats and cheeses.

However, due to an increased supply of fresh produce initiated from federal funding, Upper Valley Haven was able to open up a daily food shelf, which is stocked with items such as fresh produce and bread.

While the Haven does not receive direct federal funding, they receive a large supply of food from institutional providers such as Vermont Foodbank.

According to Redmond, the daily food shelf has seen a significant increase in family participation since this past April, where the numbers hovered around 59 families per day. Now, on average, 75 families frequent the daily food shelf, with some busier days peaking at 90.

Here is a graph showing two different lines. One is blue, one is orange. The blue line represents daily food shelf visits. The orange line represents monthly food shelf visits. Both lines stretch out over a period of April 2022 to August 2022. The lines zig-zag up and down, but both increase between April and August.
Upper Valley Haven, Courtesy
Data kept by Upper Valley Haven shows an increase in daily and monthly visits to the food shelf over the past four months.

Prior to the pandemic, Upper Valley Haven was spending $350,000 on goods per year. Since the pandemic, that number has decreased considerably.

“We're still budgeting $200,000, but the difference is that we're just now seeing so much more that is coming from the Vermont Foodbank, because they have tremendous supplies that have come from the increases in federal aid that they received directly,” Redmond said.

The approaching end of Vermont Foodbank’s government dollars could potentially impact places like the Upper Valley Haven that are reliant on those resources.

However, Redmond says that community donations have been incredible throughout the pandemic.

“We received an evaluation of $1.7 million of contributions into the Haven last year,” he said.

Redmond is hopeful that these donations, partnerships with charitable food programs and fundraising campaigns will allow Upper Valley Haven to consistently supply the community as demand continues to increase.

“I think because of just you know, inflation and everything being so expensive right now with housing and food and gas, we're seeing more and more people coming just just for groceries at the food shelf."
Anna McMahon, Feeding Chittenden

In Burlington, Feeding Chittenden says it is also seeing an influx in people using its services. At the height of the pandemic, the organization saw a 30% increase in demand.

“We're now seeing over 2,000 people a month just for our food shelf,” said Anna McMahon, major gifts and communications manager for the nonprofit. “I think because of just you know, inflation and everything being so expensive right now with housing and food and gas, we're seeing more and more people coming just just for groceries at the food shelf."

McMahon said the organization could also benefit from an increase in staffing, as well as vehicles, which would help establish a mobile pantry. Feeding Chittenden is rethinking how to make their services more accessible to people struggling with food insecurity.

According to McMahon, Feeding Chittenden would like to expand its space in the Old North End to better serve the estimated 20,000-plus people who are food insecure in the state’s most populated county.

“There are a lot of barriers to accessing food at Feeding Chittenden at our site in the Old North End,” she said.

September is Hunger Action Month. Click here to learn more about how to take action.

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Joia Putnoi worked as a Newsroom Intern from 2022 - 2023.
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