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Pandemic lessons learned about food insecurity

Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 8:02 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The pandemic hit many areas of life, including what people put on the dinner table. Now, the state and nonprofits that helped feed Vermonters are accessing their response and how to do better next time.

At the peak of the pandemic, one in three Vermonters was facing some level of food insecurity.

Anna McMahon with Feeding Chittenden says it could be a few years before we are totally recovered, but in the meantime, they are trying to think ahead.

“A lot of us are one hardship away from having to access these services,” she said.

COVID-19 had many Vermonters on the hunt for food, from food lines to mass distribution sites to services like food shelves.

McMahon in times of crisis, food is the first thing to go.

“Food is usually the first thing that needs to be cut. People water down meals or skip them altogether,” she said.

So as Vermont works its way out of the pandemic, many are assessing the response and thinking ahead.

“Federal programs are the most important part of the food support system in this country,” said John Sayles with the Vermont Foodbank.

Sayles says offering flexibility, increasing benefits in times of crisis and offering easier access are all key. That means meeting people where they are, with a faster federal response.

“When we are distributing food, it’s great to be fully stocked, but we need to be in more places than just the local food shelf or mobile food site,” he said.

Sayles wants a range in options from drive-thru pickups to mobile distributions, as well as a range in food options.

“We need to be flexible, and we need to get closer to people,” he said.

Sayles says recovery from COVID could take years before we hit pre-pandemic levels, so benefits also can’t disappear. His counterparts at the state agree.

“We still have some work to do,” said Aletha Cross, administrator of the state’s Food & Nutrition Program.

Cross says the most recent data from this past May says more than half of eligible Vermonters are not receiving 3SquaresVT benefits they may be eligible to receive and so getting the word out about benefits is needed as well as continuing the services for those that are using them.

“Maybe some places that we want to continue certain flexibilities or assisting customers in a different way,” she said.

Cross says that new resources, including curbside food ordering and home delivery, aid in breaking the stigma around food services and lower the standard for help so those previously on the edge are covered.

McMahon says to make sure everyone who is hungry is fed, all social services need to work together.

“Whether it’s food insecurity or health care or housing, when communities can come together and partner and make sure everyone is taken care of, it’s better for everyone,” she said.

“As far as what the food bank has done and it’s doing, is working with partners in the community, particularly with the state of Vermont. I would say we have a much closer relationship with the Agency of Human Services, Emergency Management, certainly the National Guard. So, if something like this were to happen again, particularly in the near future, before memories fade before people change over, I think we would be able to jump right back into that emergency mindset pretty quickly,” said Sayles.

Sayles says while we are in recovery mode now, this issue of food insecurity will persist long after the pandemic. He recommends continuing to help out local food shelves and the food bank as much as you can.

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