Near the front door of the South Burlington Food Shelf, a table crowded with roses, dahlias, sweet peas and other flowers greets residents walking in. Peter Carmolli stands at his desk near the front, laughing with fellow volunteers and welcoming customers: “Hey, how’s it going! Remind me of your name again?”
Sometimes the flowers bring tears to people’s eyes, Carmolli said. As director of the food shelf, he has seen many familiar faces return during the COVID-19 pandemic, or what he called the “zombie apocalypse,” and still sees a steady stream of people in need.
Food insecurity experts across Vermont worry that hunger has not declined despite efforts to recover from the pandemic, nor has the stigma really changed. Some officials expect a rise in need as pandemic-era assistance programs sunset, but they also hope that the confluence of mutual aid, federal funding and increased awareness can offer a window of opportunity to rethink charitable food systems.
Expiration dates approach
Gov. Phil Scott lifted all state mandated COVID-19 restrictions in June, starting the countdown to the end of eviction and utility moratoriums, and other stop gaps that kept many afloat during the pandemic. At the same time, many assistance programs, for food, housing and beyond, have ended or are nearing deadline.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families food distribution program ended in May. Everyone Eats, a state funded program bringing meals to Vermonters through partnerships with local restaurants, farmers and food producers, will expire Sept. 30. Similarly, USDA funding allowing Vermont schools to provide free school meals to all kids 18 and younger will run through the upcoming school year but expire in 2022. The list goes on.
That could be one reason food insecurity hasn’t declined, explained Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont. The other side, she said, is as employment increases, folks in need of food and housing assistance now don’t qualify for existing programs such as 3SquaresVT, the state’s nutritional assistance program.
“That’s a fundamental problem that was a problem before the pandemic,” Horton said.
One of Hunger Free Vermont’s major campaigns is to bring universal school meals to every public school in the state. Only about 25 percent of schools offered free meals pre-pandemic, while the other 75 provided a free and reduced lunch option for qualifying families. Before the USDA’s temporary meal program, South Burlington fell into that 75 percent.
“We’ve seen such a dramatic increase in the use of school meal programs because they’re universal right now. It makes that stigma disappear,” Horton said.
In South Burlington, about 500 students access free meals through the USDA program, according to Rhonda Ketner, district director of nutritional services. They saw needs rise at the area elementary schools and fall slightly at the high school.
She hopes that the Legislature will find a way to provide universal meals to all Vermont students after the federal funding sunsets next year. Pulling the plug on a program many have gotten used to would be difficult on families, she said.
“Let’s hope that other people understand just how important it is, not just from a basic, physical need to survive, but also from the social and emotional aspects,” she said.
An average of 30 people access the South Burlington Food Shelf every week, four out of five of whom work full-time, according to Carmolli. One reason why, he thinks, is because of high housing costs in the area.
About 15 percent of households in South Burlington use more than half of their income to pay for housing, according to Vermont Housing Data, and the median cost for a home in South Burlington is $90,000 higher than the rest of the state.
The food shelf doesn’t require as many hoops to jump through as other food services, Carmolli added, which can make it easier for folks who are apprehensive.
“Just about everyone does go through a situation when they need help in some way, be it food or housing or whatever. It touches everyone, at some point in their life. Everyone needs help. I just say, you know, a lot of us are just one catastrophic injury away from needing the food shelf,” said Carmolli.
Horton echoed a similar sentiment, noting how having to repeatedly fill out applications proving need can be traumatizing.
“I think that it’s traumatizing for students every single day that they use the cafeteria. And I think it’s traumatizing for families every year that they confront those forms. And I think it’s traumatizing for school staff who have to ask families to do it,” she said.
Rob Meehan, director of Feeding Chittenden, expects to see more of a rise in food insecurity into the fall as programs run out of funding and restrictions on unemployment benefits change.
“As far as the numbers game goes, the sad truth is more people are in need of help with groceries” than on paper, Meehan said. But many are deterred by application hoops and stigma, both societal and internalized.
He thinks perhaps public perceptions of food and charity were altered during the pandemic but wonders if they changed internal feelings. “Did that happen for the person receiving the food? I think the reason you saw lower numbers and pantries in Vermont is because they went to other places,” Meehan noted.
According to John Sayles, CEO of Vermont Foodbank, their food distribution increased from 11 million pounds in 2019 to 19 million pounds in 2020. This year, they’re on track to meet that same need. Sayles refrained from making any predictions about what needs might look like as assistance programs end. COVID-19 is still here, he noted, and many factors are at play, from school meals to unemployment benefits — it’s hard to know what could happen.
One silver lining food insecurity experts note is the opportunity to rethink food assistance.
“Because of the pandemic, opportunities are coming before us to change to be a better system for charitable food,” Meehan said. Feeding Chittenden is expanding its delivery assistance models, among other projects, to reach more people in need who are apprehensive to visit in person.
“This is a window of opportunity,” Horton said. “We need everybody in Vermont to keep paying attention and demanding, on behalf of their communities, that we actually make structural changes.”
At the South Burlington Food Shelf, volunteers are back in the building and working with customers in person. Most people’s smiles can be seen, since masks aren’t required, as they browse the food aisles or stop at the Common Roots farmstand out front, offering free produce. Almost everyone leaves with a box of food and a bouquet of flowers.
The South Burlington Food Shelf is open for donations Thursdays 9:30-11:30 a.m., and for pick-up Thursdays 4:30-6:30 p.m., Fridays 8-10 a.m., and Saturdays 8-10 a.m.