Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont Hunger Councils, 11-17-2020

Rep. Peter Welch, D — Vt., speaks with food access advocates from several corners of Vermont during a virtual Tuesday meeting with Vermont’s Hunger Councils.

ST. ALBANS – If there was a takeaway from advocates’ virtual meeting with Rep. Peter Welch, D – Vt., on Tuesday, it was that federal stimulus may have helped stem an expected surge in hunger.

Welch met virtually with representatives from Vermont’s Hunger Councils, coalitions of social service providers and food security advocates organized under Hunger Free Vermont.

According to members of those Hunger Councils, advocates and social service providers had found a lot of success with programs funded through the federal CARES Act and suggested stimulus programs had helped hold back a wave of hunger many expected during the opening months of the pandemic.

As those programs subside, however, some expressed concerns that they’d see more Vermonters impacted by the pandemic coming to Vermont’s network of food shelves.

Here’s what you need to know.

Some food shelves, anticipating a surge in use as gubernatorial orders closed much of Vermont’s economy, actually saw fewer users as federal stimulus spending expanded supports for those in need.

As the coming of COVID-19 to Vermont in early 2020 and subsequent public health orders closing most businesses ground Vermont’s economy to a halt, organizers feared a possible surge in hunger would follow.

But while U.S. Census Bureau data shows food insecurity climbing by roughly 49 percent since March and while some food shelves have reported a surge in demand at their sites, others have seen use actually decline through much of the pandemic.

According to the Franklin – Grand Isle Community Action’s Robert Ostermeyer, the organization’s St. Albans-based food shelf saw fewer visitors than usual in the pandemic’s opening months.

“We anticipated in March, when COVID first struck, that we would be facing a real crisis in terms of our ability to provide for the community,” Ostermeyer said, “but, in fact, the opposite happened.”

Robert Ostermeyer, 2-24-2020.jpg

Franklin/Grand Isle Community Action director Robert Ostermeyer speaks with Franklin and Grand Isle counties’ Hunger Council during a February meeting.

Out of the roughly 2,000 households served by the food shelf and its satellites in Richford and Grand Isle County, between 30 and 50 percent fewer households sought help from the Community Action’s food shelf, NorthWest Family Foods.

Lisa Pitcher, the director of Bellows Falls’ Our Place Drop-in Center and longtime co-chair of the Windham Region’s Hunger Council, said she saw a similar trend with her organization’s food pantry in Windham County in Vermont’s southeast.

“The number of people coming for the food pantry dropped off significantly in April, May and June, and have started now to rise again back to more normal levels,” Pitcher said. “We’re not quite back to our normal numbers, but we’re getting closer.”

Ostermeyer, on Tuesday, attributed the fewer numbers to the slew of state and federal assistance released in the pandemic’s opening months, ranging from the programs authorized under the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to expansions of benefits programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance.

“There was a lot of support money coming to these households,” Ostermeyer said. “I’ve had people anecdotally telling me they felt more financially secure and less financially stressed than they had at any other time, so that proves, on one hand, that intervention’s working.”

Pitcher appeared to agree with Ostermeyer, attributing the rising use of their Bellows Falls’ food pantry to the gradual sunsetting of certain stimulus programs. “I definitely think food shelf numbers are going up because of the assistance that was there going away,” she said.

NorthWest Family Foods, 1-24-2019

A volunteer at NorthWest Family Foods carts boxes of food between shelves during a food drop off in early 2019.

Hunger advocates heralded specific successes spurred by the pandemic.

One program anecdotally celebrated across Vermont’s Hunger Councils during Tuesday’s meeting was the Everyone Eats program, which taps CARES Act dollars to, in effect, purchase to-go meals from local restaurants for Vermonters in need.

As a part of the program, a certain percentage of the ingredients used by restaurants participating in Everyone Eats needs to be procured from local food producers.

According to advocates on Tuesday’s call, the program, which is rooted in Vermont’s southeast but has since spread to most of the Green Mountain State, has helped feed some Vermonters left in financially dire straits by the pandemic and has actually introduced some of those in need to other food supports.

“Everyone Eats filled a very essential gap and brought a lot of people into the charitable food system who weren’t already and, I think, made people feel more comfortable with accessing additional food,” Christine Colascione, a Brattleboro-based member of the coalition that piloted Everyone Eats, said.

Another area celebrated during advocates’ conversation with Welch on Tuesday were state and federal expansions to hallmark social safety net programs like unemployment insurance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Within Vermont, food shelf coordinators they saw a noticeable local impact at least in part due to expanded SNAP benefits and other extended benefits programs, like unemployment insurance, as newfound financial security led families to purchase their own food rather than visit a food shelf.

“People were buying their own food, which we found people want to do and that’s what they will do when they have the resources,” Pitcher, from the Windham Region’s Hunger Council said. “Most people don’t really enjoy coming to the food pantry to get food.”

Rob Meehan, from the Burlington-based Feeding Chittenden, took reactions to the expanded benefits a step further, saying the pandemic proved safety net programs were effective answers to addressing hunger in the U.S.

“What we just saw is that, when government comes in and helps with charitable food, people are better off,” he said. “If SNAP was fully funded, imagine how much the community would be strengthened.”

Rep. Peter Welch visits NorthWest Family Foods, 2017

Rep. Peter Welch speaks during a 2017 visit to NorthWest Family Foods in St. Albans.

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Welch didn’t appear optimistic about additional federal relief in the coming weeks.

While Vermont’s only Congressperson seemed happy to celebrate the work food security advocates had managed on the ground, he seemed pessimistic about Congress’s ability to approve another federal stimulus package at the scale of the CARES Act – at least in the short term.

“We had a good start with the CARES package… but, right now, as you know, that expires in December and we continue to be in a deadlock,” Welch said. “We were trying everything we could do to get something done before the election and we did not succeed.”

Welch referenced two large relief packages approved in the U.S. House of Representatives – the $3 trillion HEROES Act and the more recent $2.2 trillion “HEROES Act 2.0” – that have yet to be taken up by the U.S. Senate, where Republican leadership has favored far smaller pandemic relief packages.

“In all candor,” Welch said,” I’m somewhat pessimistic about the prospects of a big package.”

Welch said he expected possible movement on federal pandemic relief once President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January and that, whenever future COVID-19 relief is passed, it’ll likely include some form of food relief as, per the Congressperson, “there is a consensus on food programs.”

“We’re going to need this,” Welch said. “Even with the good news of a vaccine that might be here by the end of the year… the economic consequences – the food insecurity you’re dealing with – will continue.”

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