By Matt Sutkoski
Burlington Free Press
In an era of uncertain funding for food assistance inVermont, here’s what might be among the most ironic examples of life in a time of food insecurity.
Colin Gray, 26, ofBurlingtonsays he participates in the 3SquaresVT program,Vermont’s name for the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP.
SNAP is the newish name for the federal food stamp program. He’s eligible for the program because he is an AmeriCorps volunteer, and his stipend doesn’t fully cover his expenses.
The odd part: His job with AmeriCorps is to work with school children to organize fundraisers that combat hunger inVermont. “The irony is not lost on me,” he said.
Gray might have his anti-hunger work cut out for him, especially since his eligibility for 3SquaresVT could be at in the coming months.
As more and more Vermonters join 3SquaresVT — there are about 100,000 participants now — food advocates inVermontare growing increasingly alarmed by the possibility of Congress making sharp cuts to the program.
If that happens, more people would go toVermontfood shelves, anti-hunger advocates say. Those food shelves, faced with already increased demand, are dealing with smaller commodity shipments from theU.S.government and smaller donations from individuals and organizations because of economic stagnation.
Money, deficits and politics
To the relief of anti-hunger advocates in Vermont and elsewhere, the most immediate emergency in Washington, the so-called sequestration — which consists of sharp, nearly across the board budget cuts scheduled to take effect March 1 unless Congress intervenes — exempts SNAP, and by extension, 3SquaresVT.
That means the program will continue as is. For now.
However, Congress still needs to grapple with the $500 billion federal Farm Bill. That bill governs the fate of everything from agricultural policies in theMidwestto farm subsidies to a broad array of nutritional programs, including 3SquaresVT and SNAP as a whole.
Alarmed by large budget deficits, Congress threatened severe cuts to nutritional programs within the Farm Bill during the fiscal cliff debate at the close of 2012. Action on the Farm Bill was ultimately postponed until September, when those proposed cuts to nutritional programs could “We are concerned about the House bill because that would have meant thousands of Vermonters currently on the program would have lost eligibility and everyone would have had their benefit amounts cut,” said Angela Smith-Dieng, the 3SquaresVT advocacy manager for the organization Hunger Free Vermont.
Hunger Free Vermont is an advocacy group for low income people who have inadequate access to food.
Right now, a family of four is eligible for 3SquaresVT if the household’s gross monthly income is about $3,500, Smith-Dieng said. If proposed cuts to the Farm Bill are enacted, the eligibility limit would fall to about $2,500, she said.
To Susan Thatcher, 66, of Winooski, these debates shouldn’t even be happening inWashington. She said she’s fed up with what she sees as posturing inWashingtonover how best to solve the nation’s financial problems. That posturing, Thatcher said, should not take place on the backs of poor people.
“We’re like pawns on a chess board,” Thatcher said. “People in this country should come first.”
She was at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf Thursday, hobbling on a bad leg, picking up some donated food to supplement what she gets through food assistance. Thatcher said she’s on disability due to various ills, and the assistance doesn’t always go far enough.
Thatcher said she worries about the future of the nation if disparities between the haves and have-nots grow. “People will begin to uprise. People are getting tired of this,” she said.
Some might say an obvious solution to the cost of providing food assistance is for recipients to go out and get a job. The problem is, many of them already have jobs, said Judy Stermer of the Vermont FoodBank.
About 60 percent of households whose members go to food banks inVermonthave at least one person who has a job, she said. The problem is, many jobs are minimum wage, part time, or seasonal. Many people have trouble cobbling enough jobs together to make ends meet, Stermer said.
“A huge proportion of our workers are underemployed,” Stermer said.
Many other people on 3SquaresVT, or who go to food shelves, are elderly, said Smith-Dieng, the advocate with Hunger Free Vermont.
Some people eligible for 3SquaresVT are unaware they are eligible for it and Hunger Free Vermont is campaigning to make these people aware the resource. That’s despite the threat of budget cuts that could kick people off the program later this year.
Numbers of people receiving 3SquaresVT benefits have increased sharply in recent years.
Participation in 3SquaresVT increased from 62,954 in December 2008 to 100,624 in December 2012. Smith-Dieng said a large increase of nearly 24,000 between 2008 and 2009 was due to a crashing economy and increases in the income eligibility for participants.
Smith-Dieng said it’s morally right to make people aware of their eligibility. Tax dollars do pay for the federal SNAP program, but it also acts as a stimulant to theVermonteconomy, she said.
People who receive the food assistance money need to the food, which Smith-Dieng says boosts the fortunes of grocery stores and makes them more likely to hire more workers.
Food shelf prospects
Food pantries and shelves rely on food commodities from the federal government and donations from individuals, groups and businesses to supply clients with food, said Rob Meehan of the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf.
There have been cutbacks on commodities from the federal government, food shelves have not recovered from a recession that dampened donations from businesses and individuals, and demand has gone up, Meehan said.
Cuts to the Farm Bill, Meehan said, would hurt some ofVermont’s most vulnerable people. “We’re making decisions that are harming these folks,” he said.
More people will turn to food shelves if 3SquaresVt endures funding cuts, Meehan said, adding if that happens, he has no idea how his organization would handle the demand.
Stermer, of the Vermont FoodBank, said the funding uncertainties make it hard to plan food shelf services. “We’re already struggling to meet the needs. How do you plan for more people? It’s a constant struggle,” she said.
Gray, the AmeriCorps volunteer, was at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf Thursday because his stipend, combined with the 3SquaresVT benefits he receives, isn’t always enough. Rents are high inBurlington, he said. “Other places, I’d be able to live just fine on the (AmeriCorps) stipend,” he said.
His gig with AmeriCorps lasts until September, about the time the Farm Bill comes up for debate. Between now and then, he said he’ll continue to help schools advocate for the homeless, mostly by helping them coordinate fundraisers.
“We’re trying to teach the most creative ways to serve,” he said.