Tuesday, the Vermont Foodbank held its 6th annual hunger conference, Impact Through Innovation, presented by National Life at the Sheraton in Burlington, Vermont. The conference was open to the general public but many of the attendees were network partners–staff and volunteers of the 280 food shelves, meal sites, shelters, senior centers, and after-school programs served by the Foodbank.

Attendees were welcomed by Foodbank board member Margie Stern, Governor Peter Shumlin, President and CEO of National Life Group Mehran Assadi and CEO of Vermont Foodbank John Sayles.  Each speaker reiterated the importance of making hunger eradication a priority, both at the federal and state level and thanked all the attendees for joining together to work on ending hunger in Vermont. 

The conference’s keynote speaker was diversity and inclusion guru, Dr. Steve Robbins.  As a student of human behavior, Dr. Robbins explained, “Human behavior in the context of diversity is the study and understanding of how people engage and respond to new and novel things, whether those things are people, ideas, ways of doing, etc.” He adds, ” When it comes to what many people think of when they think about diversity it boils down to the idea of the insider and the outsider, how we label insiders and outsiders and how our labels influence our behavior.” Robbins suggested that if we can begin to understand human behavior from that type of framework we can easily see how developing open-minded individuals and organizational cultures is the first stage of the “diversity journey” and how the work of “diversity and inclusion” can positively impact:

1. Creativity and innovation,
2. Employee engagement and enthusiasm, and
3. Continuous learning and improvement.

Participants were also treated to a number of engaging workshops. In The True Cost of Hunger, moderator Dorigen Keeney of Hunger Free Vermont cited a study from the Center for American Progress that reports “hunger costs our nation $167.5 billion due to the combination of economic productivity lost per year, more expensive public education as a result of the rising cost of poor education outcomes, avoidable heath care costs, and the cost of charity to keep families fed.” This number does not include the cost of key federal nutrition programs, which are the first line of defense against hunger. Panelists from the Food Research and Action Center and Children’s HealthWatch talked about how federal spending on the nutritional safety net really make a difference in the health and well-being of very young children and seniors. And not only to the federal nutrition programs impact health, they also generate economic revenue.  For every $1 of SNAP (in Vermont 3SquaresVT and formerly the Food Stamp Program) benefits given, states see a $1.84 economic stimulant. 

In Unconventional Partnerships: Engaging New Thinkers to Help Solve Social Issues, conference attendees learned about The Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes.  After a community-wide debate on how to save their failing elementary school, Burlington residents decided to pursue an entirely new model of schooling at Lawrence Barnes Elementary School. What resulted is one of Vermont’s first magnet schools and the country’s first sustainability-themed elementary schools.  Principal, Brian Williams talked about the importance of partnerships in making this project possible.  He was joined by a number of the school’s most important partners–Vince Brennan, Ward 3 City Councilor; Kyle Dodsen of Champlain College’s Center for Service and Civic Engagement; and Chris Miller of Seventh Generation

In Fresh Food Initiatives: Accessing the Food at Our Feet, Theresa Snow of Salvation Farms led an interesting discussion with resourceful leaders from local schools, food shelves and private businesses who have implemented innovative strategies that are creating greater access to fresh, local foods.  Nancy Chase of the Upper Valley Haven talked about creating meals and taste testing opportunities for visitors of the food shelf, using produce that may be unfamiliar to them.  Denise Foote, chef at The Sustainability Academy talked about her experience working with children from 13 different countries.  Over the years, Denise has worked to empower students to teach each other, noting that many of her foreign born students have great familiarity with fresh fruits and vegetables.  Denise’s students often participate in the preparation of the school meals they eat.  Rob MacFarlane of Sodexo, talked about his company’s commitment to working with each of Vermont’s state colleges to incorporate more local food into their cafeteria menus.  Rob also talked about the challenge of not having a standardized definition of “local.”  For example, Vermont Technical College is striving to produce all the food that they use–so for them, local means “on campus.” Sodexo works with other colleges that have a very different definition. Philip Ackerman-Leist of Green Mountain College talked about working with a food service company to purchase more local food.  They are also using a mobile flash-freeze unit to process food.  This unit travels around the region, and farmers and small-scale food producers have access to the unit.

And in Advocacy: Actionable from “Best Practices” to “Next Practices” participants heard about the importance of storytelling in all advocacy efforts.  Kevin Ellis of KSE about the basics of advocacy:
1. Be Informed–read the headlines, know what’s happening in your community
2. Tell your story–create a short elevator speech about your organization
3. Ask for help–Vermont is a small community, if there is a need, there is someone who can help
Bryan of Hen House Media talk about the importance of the story being genuine and timely, while using every available venue to get your story out into the world. He told a story about a project that Hen House worked on for a family whose daughter had run away from home.  Hen House created a spot that CNN agreed to air once finished. Once finished, Hen House sent the piece to CNN and to all the friends of the young girl who had run away.  Before the piece even aired on CNN, the young girl had been found because her friends flooded social media with the piece and the girl was found.  Marissa Parisi of Hunger Free Vermont talked about their 14 Free project–a video story project that told the stories of food providers from around Vermont.  Marissa noted the importance of choosing the right storyteller for the project.  While Hunger Free Vermont could have told the stories used in the 14 Free project, the story was much more impactful coming from the provider.

This year’s conference was made possible through the generous support of National Life Group and the following businesses:
Key Bank
City Market
People’s United Bank
Common Good Vermont
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont

Vermont Butter and Cheese
King Arthur Flour
Nikon Precision
Gardner’s Supply
Vermont Technical College
Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf

CCTV recorded the opening session and will make that available to us very soon.  Once available, we will post it here there and everywhere.  Please stay tuned! And if you missed this year’s conference, consider marking your calendar for next year’s conference, Tuesday, May 7, 2013.