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Two in five Vermonters are facing food insecurity, yet food donations are down 20% since 2019

A photo of a table seen from above with a meal including turkey, potatoes, vegetables and more, with hands reaching with utensils towards the plates.
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Food donations received by the Vermont Foodbank are down 20% since 2019, and the need for food assistance is higher than ever, with two in five Vermonters experiencing food insecurity.

As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us think of time spent with family and friends, and the food: like buttery mashed potatoes, rich stuffing, homemade breads and pies, and of course, turkey. But the ubiquitous Thanksgiving main meal is right now at record high costs.

The Vermont Foodbank tried to purchase 6,200 turkeys this year to distribute to families in need, but they could only get their hands on about 4,600. There are more than a few reasons why: avian flu has taken up more than 6 million turkeys this year; and the burden of inflation is hampering Thanksgiving preparations around the country.

But turkey is not the only thing that has taken a hit this holiday season. Food donations received by the Vermont Foodbank are down 20% since 2019, and the need for food assistance is higher than ever with two in five Vermonters experiencing food insecurity.

Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with government and public affairs officer for the Vermont Foodbank, Carrie Stahler, to give us a detailed picture of the pressures Vermonters are facing when it comes to putting food on the table. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: What are the trends that you're seeing in Vermont when it comes to food insecurity and food donations this year?

Carrie Stahler: We have seen a much higher need in the community broadly and higher than in 2021. Last year, it sort of looked like numbers were going down. People were recovering from the pandemic. And I think the inflation of 2022, and economic challenges, and just the sort of regular struggles of getting back to the way we used to operate while COVID is still at large in our community, has made it really hard for a lot of folks.

And there continues to be disruptions that make it hard for people. Some of our direct distribution events have seen a 100% increase since 2021. We're seeing strong pressure as we're doing these food distributions to get food out to everybody who wants it. We’re able to meet that need, generally speaking, but when it comes to specific meals like Thanksgiving, where there are some expectations around what people want for those meals, you know, particularly turkey, has been a little bit harder this year than it's ever been for us in the past.

More from Vermont Public: Two out of every five Vermonters is food insecure, new data show

What is the state of Vermont doing to meet the increasing needs of Vermonters who face food insecurity, and what can be done to help boost the supply of food?

The state of Vermont during the pandemic, when there was a lot of ARPA funding, was very generous and was able to help support us in our network with millions of dollars in funding, unfortunately not as many dollars as we needed to continue to meet this need. And food insecurity is really a trailing indicator when it comes to crises. We saw that in the 2008 Great Recession, where it took 10 years to get back to pre-recession levels of food security in the state. And we're really seeing that again. It's going to take us quite some time to get back to where we were in 2019.

We need the state to continue to support us, our network, our other partner organizations working across the state, with dollars and other types of support to make sure that people have the food they need and want.

The Vermont Foodbank wanted to order 6,200 turkeys that they could give out to families this year, and about 4,600 were received. So I'm wondering, what are the challenges that food shelves and food banks are facing this Thanksgiving when it comes to just getting out the food for that meal that everybody seems to put a lot of focus on this time of year?

Yeah, there is a lot of focus on this meal. And I will say it's the way that we always operate, is to try and get people the food they need and want. So this time of year, that just means there are a few different items on the menu than there usually are. We weren't able to meet the expected need from our network partners. But I will say that it has often also impacted more local donations. So we have network partners who receive turkeys from us, but they also sometimes get local donations. We don't know what those will look like this year because of the shortages. It really depends on how turkeys sell at the grocery store.

"Some of our direct distribution events have seen a 100% increase since 2021. We're seeing strong pressure as we're doing these food distributions to get food out to everybody who wants it."
Carrie Stahler, Vermont Foodbank

And this really is affecting everything. It's not just the price of turkey. The price of canned cranberries as I understand it, that's a Thanksgiving staple, has gone up about 20%. We're seeing higher prices for eggs, all sorts of things. And I think this underscores the need for nutritional food year-round. I mean, we always seem to focus on Thanksgiving, but I'm wondering what you think about trying to put more of an emphasis on food insecurity as a year-round problem, because two in five Vermonters experiencing food insecurity seems like a very high number to me.

Food insecurity is a year-round problem. I will say in Vermont, we have complicating factors this time of year that really start to rear their heads. People are paying for their heating fuel bills. People are seeing other costs, putting snow tires on their cars, or really getting ready for winter. And so often the places where people can flex their budget and where household budgets can shrink is in that food area, where you're spending money on food. And when inflation comes into play, and our Foodbank dollars don't stretch as far, and household dollars don't stretch as far, and dollars people receive through 3Squares Vermont don't stretch as far, that starts to create a problem that snowballs.

Isn’t there a stigma that sometimes comes for people that might feel a shame that they have to go to a food shelf or a food bank when they really should not?

I think stigma has always been a big part of folks accessing the food they need or not. I will say that during the pandemic, people really felt a lot more comfortable coming out to get that kind of help. I think in some ways, it's been a good thing for the work that we do, because we don't want people to feel like they shouldn't come to a food pantry or they shouldn't come to a food distribution event if they really need food or their family needs food.

How to get help:

Visit vtfoodbank.org/gethelp to learn more about resources that can help you access food. Consider applying for 3SquaresVT, a program that can help provide funds to purchase groceries. You can find other food help resources here, compiled by Hunger Free Vermont.

How to give help:

· You can donate to the Vermont Foodbank at vtfoodbank.org/give.

· Sign up to volunteer at an upcoming food distribution or to participate in gleaning at a local farm at vtfoodbank.org/volunteer.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station WBUR...as a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Managing Producer of Morning News. She manages the morning news content on broadcast and digital platforms, and works with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb to bring listeners the latest news and information, along with relevant interviews. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She produces the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke. Karen recently worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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