Numbers are never the whole story, but Hunger in America 2014 data tells us that 153,100 Vermonters — 61,800 families — are using food provided by the Vermont Foodbank to ensure they get enough food to eat throughout the year. Another national study, Map the Meal Gap, tells us that Vermonters miss more than 14.6 million meals annually because they can’t afford enough food. At an average of $3.06 per meal, that’s close to $45 million. On average, some of our neighbors are missing food for 96 meals per year. At $3.06 per meal, that’s an additional $294 per person, per year to feed everyone. What can be done?

I’m thinking of three ways to close that gap. The first, best and most sustainable way is better paying, steady jobs for Vermonters on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Seventy-five percent, or 46,350, of Vermont families touched by the Vermont Foodbank have household incomes of less than $20,000 per year. If each of these households earned $10,000 more a year, an additional $46 million in wages could go toward buying good food.

“Well, they should get better jobs,” some might say. But as long as we have low-wage jobs, we will have families and individuals who continue to experience a meal gap. The Hunger Study also tells us that budgets are already cut to the bone. Seventy-two percent of our neighbors who use the food bank purchase less healthy, cheaper food in order to get enough calories.

The second way is government safety net programs that fill the gap left by inadequate wages and for those who can’t work — children, elderly and the disabled. Benefits from 3SquaresVT were cut twice last year. State budgets have been at levels well below the established need for the past decade. Political leaders say “no more revenues,” and families make more damaging trade-offs, setting them even farther behind. “The government is already too big,” some might say. If so, we all need to think about what government should and can do, and what other resources exist to fill the need.

The third way is a network of nonprofit organizations, like the Vermont Foodbank, providing resources to help our neighbors remain active, healthy and productive community members, regardless of what life throws at them. This support relies on private giving, which has limits. For example, the country’s charitable food network distributed more than $7 billion worth of food last year, which was about 4 percent of total food assistance, including government aid. If government programs shrink, and wages don’t increase, charities would need to raise tens of billions of additional dollars in food and funds. It would be unprecedented.

The “answer” needs to be a combination of all three ways: better paying, more stable jobs; an adequate government safety net; and increased support for nonprofit organizations, like the Vermont Foodbank, that work with our neighbors who still need assistance. There is no one answer, and we all must make some sacrifices to create a more stable and prosperous Vermont, and country.

John Sayles
Vermont Foodbank CEO

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