A new study indicates that food insecurity and hunger remain a problem in Vermont and across the country, even with the improved economy.
Over the past 20 years, Feeding America has conducted a series of quadrennial surveys with its network of 200 food banks across the country to assess hunger. The results of the latest Hunger in America survey, taken between April and August 2013, found that across the country more than 46 million people are turning to food banks. The survey is the most comprehensive look at hunger ever gathered, according to Feeding America CEO Bob Aiken. “Hunger in America is the largest study of its kind ever conducted. It’s based on interviews with more than 60,000 people from across the country who seek help at food pantries and meal programs. The findings are alarming and they reflect the enormous hardships faced by millions of people and families in this country today.”
The survey found that 18,700 people are served weekly by food shelves and programs supported by the Vermont Foodbank. A member of Feeding America, it gathered the data for the Green Mountain state. State data found that 1 in 4 Vermonters turn to food shelves and meal programs. 63 percent must choose between food or paying utility bills, 56 percent must choose whether they will eat or pay for medicine, and 52 percent struggle between paying for food or housing.
What Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles finds most striking is that the results confirm what is known anecdotally. “Specifically almost 72 percent of the households report purchasing cheaper unhealthy food because they can’t afford healthier options. Now we hear that all the time and we finally asked that question. And the results show that that is absolutely what’s happening. We’ve asked the questions before about people choosing between paying for food and paying for medicine or rent. We asked some new questions about health conditions, diabetes and high blood pressure, which are really telling.”
Sayles says the data from the survey will help focus their services and hone in on what people need. “For instance the data about people purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food tells us that we really need to focus on the foods that are the most expensive and healthiest. So fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy. We’ve been working on that, both at the Vermont FoodBank and I know all the other foodbanks across the country. It’s more challenging and we need to reach them with the kind of foods that they need and want.”
Hunger-Free Vermont was not involved in the Feeding America survey. Executive Director Marissa Parisi says that even though the economy is recovering, hunger and food insecurity remain a problem. “The jobs that are coming back are predominantly lower wage jobs. In Vermont and in the Northeast it’s a very expensive place to live. We have high heating, high transportation, high housing costs and food ends up being the most flexible part of the family’s budget. So I think that’s why we see people continuing to have challenges and needing to use things like 3SquaresVT or our food shelves.”