Friday, July 18, 2014

"Full Pay" Students Can't Afford Lunch Either

I had lunch on one of the last days of the school year this past June at the Milton School and caught up with Food Service Director, and new member to our Board, Steve Marinelli. In addition to having a delightful lunch including good food and entertainment (Friday lunch in Milton includes dance music that often results in a conga line as it did the day I was there!), I was also reminded how crucial our work is in realizing our vision for universal meals in all Vermont schools. Steve shared with me what you see pictured to the left: a list of all the debts "full pay" kids had at the end of the school year. You can see that the total was over $6,600!

We hear constantly from food service directors and principals across Vermont that even though children in the  “full pay” category are required to pay, they often don’t have the money, even though they clearly need a nutritious meal. This example in Milton illustrates this problem. Food service directors everywhere have been feeding kids regardless of their ability to pay which has created debt in programs across our school systems. At the end of each school year, these meal program debts must be paid by the taxpayers of each town. 

The current school meal model is inefficient and wastes precious dollars and time trying to collect debts. These resources could be better used to invest in nutritious school meal programs that serve all children. We believe that a universal school meals model supports working parents by ensuring their children have nutritious meals at school, thereby alleviating the stress and concern of packing meals from home each day.  Universal school meals will end the economic categorization students experience in the school lunch line and ensure that all children get nutritious breakfasts, lunches, and snacks every day. Well-fed children do better in school, are sick less often, have fewer behavioral issues, and tend to be more engaged in the broader community. By eliminating the need for food service directors to collect money from children and parents, there is less risk for debt in the school budget. Money currently used to cover debts could be more wisely allocated to increase the quality of school food and teach nutrition education. Overall, the universal meals model is more economically efficient for schools and taxpayers, and a simple way to support children, family, and community health for the long term.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Honoring Our Seniors with Nourishing Meals

Guest blogger, Faye Conte,
3SquaresVT Advocate at Hunger Free Vermont

By 9:00 AM the Twin Valley Senior Center in Plainfield is filled with the smells of coffee and the sounds of old friends greeting each other. It’s the first day in the Center’s new location, which is bigger and better able to meet the needs of their growing clientele. I’m lucky enough to be spending the day with them, to see firsthand how the Senior Center is helping local seniors access good, nutritious food. About 10 seniors get off the special Green Mountain Transit Authority (GMTA) bus that picks them up at their homes in the surrounding towns and brings them to the Senior Center three days each week. They will eat both breakfast and lunch at the Center, spending the morning socializing and participating in programs ranging from free health screenings to Tai Chi. In the kitchen, a group of dedicated volunteers, most seniors themselves, package Meals on Wheels lunches for today’s delivery. Freshly cooked beef stew, spinach, beets, corn bread and a cookie are on today’s menu for the home-delivered meals and the luncheon served at the Center. Volunteers and the Center’s one paid kitchen staff have already been here for hours, getting everything ready for the volunteer drivers who deliver to about 40 homebound seniors in its six-town service area. Volunteer drivers each spend about two hours driving through the back roads of Central Vermont to deliver meals before returning to the Center for a hot lunch themselves.

The volunteers do much more than just deliver a hot meal, though. Linda, who has been volunteering since her retirement in 2012, explains that she is often the only person who these seniors see each week. She checks in on them, often letting dogs in or out, taking down laundry, and bringing in the mail. These quick visits give her a sense of their health, too, so the Center can let families and medical providers know if someone isn’t doing well.  As we drive from house to house, Linda shares stories, telling me about the struggles of so many isolated seniors during the long winter, the times that her car has broken down, and about how she fell and broke her wrist delivering a meal last month. Mostly, though, she talks about how much she loves delivering meals and the relationships she has built with the seniors on her route. Linda tells me that when she retired she wanted to find a way to give back to her community, and that she feels honored to serve these seniors. Each home that we visit is different; some are cabins tucked into the woods, others are old farm houses filled with photos of children and grandchildren who live elsewhere. Each senior is different, as well; there are an infinite number of reasons that someone may come to rely upon Meals on Wheels. Some are using the program only for a short time as they recover from an illness or injury; others participate for years because they can no longer cook for themselves. No matter the reason, though, each senior is visibly happy to see Linda and appreciative of the meal. It is often the only warm, full meal, they’ll have today.

After we finish our deliveries, Linda and I head back to the Senior Center to join other volunteers and seniors for lunch. While chatting with some of the seniors, I learn that their visits to the Senior Center three days each week are the only times they are able to leave their home and socialize. They have developed strong friendships here, and appreciate the opportunity to see each other, participate in group activities, and share a meal with someone. Many can no longer drive or can’t afford the gas to drive very often, so the door-to-door transportation provided by GMTA enables these seniors to attend the lunches.

Meals on Wheels and Community Meals are federal nutrition programs, federally funded through the Older Americans Act. Meal providers, like the Twin Valley Senior Center, receive a small reimbursement for each meal that they prepare. That reimbursement is not enough to cover the full cost of the meal, however, and so providers rely upon volunteers, donated food, fundraising, and donations from the recipients themselves. Recipients are not required to pay anything for the meal, donations are only suggested, but many contribute as much as they can.

Funding for these programs has remained flat for years while the demand for these meals and the cost of providing them grow. Every day 10,000 more Americans turn 65 years old; the need for strong nutrition programs will only continue to build. Proper nutrition is key to the elderly’s ability to remain healthy and independent. Getting enough healthy food can keep seniors out of the hospital and nursing home, allowing them to age comfortably in their own home and community. For many seniors, healthy food is too expensive, and cooking from scratch is too strenuous; attending a community meal or receiving Meals on Wheels is the only way they are able to access high quality meals. More and more seniors are struggling financially. Many who have been able to provide for themselves and their families find that Social Security payments are just not enough to cover their living expenses. A single health scare can disrupt years of savings, making it impossible for a senior to afford heat, medication, and healthy food.  

As the kitchen volunteers took off their aprons and sat down with their fellow seniors to share in a meal, I was struck by how much the Senior Center is trying to do with such limited funding. Running Community Meals and Meals on Wheels programs in rural Vermont requires much organization, skill, and dedication.  Without the generosity of volunteers and donors, many seniors in our communities would go hungry. Support, both federally and locally, for these programs that feed our parents, grandparents, and neighbors is integral for keeping seniors healthy and well fed. It is so important to care for those who have cared for us and built our strong, Vermont communities. The Older Americans Act has been up for reauthorization since 2011, but Congress has yet to vote on a bill. Senator Sanders has sponsored a strong bill in the Senate that would protect these important nutrition programs. A similar bill has been introduced in the House. I urge our members of Congress to pass a strong Older Americans Act, securing proper funding for senior nutrition programs. Caring for our elderly community members takes local support and strength as well; I hope you will join me in supporting your local senior meals providers with a donation or by volunteering this summer.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Building Healthy Food Access for All

Entry door at Putney Co-op
Guest blogger, Faye Conte,
3SquaresVT Advocate at Hunger Free Vermont

In 1844 the first food co-op was formed in England to help community members access safe, nutritious food at an affordable price. Today, there are hundreds of food co-ops around the country. While they may look a little different than the original co-op, their intention is the same: to provide their community with high-quality food at affordable prices. High-quality, healthy food at any food store can be expensive, though, and is often out of reach for low-income families relying on food assistance.

Over the past year, Hunger Free Vermont has partnered with the Neighboring Food Co-op Association and the Cooperative Fund of New England on the Healthy Food Access Project which helps food co-ops in New England make their stores more accessible to all community members. With generous support from Jane’s Trust, this project provides support and technical assistance to co-ops as they develop and launch programs that make food more affordable, including Food for All and Co-op Basics. Food for All provides a 10% discount in the store for households participating in benefit programs like 3SquaresVT and WIC. Co-op Basics is available to all shoppers, and provides staples like bread, milk, and diapers, at affordable prices. Both of these programs require the co-op to sell goods at a lower profit margin; despite the initial financial hit, many are lining up to launch the programs! Additionally, we have been able to raise awareness about hunger among co-op staff and their communities through educational events and trainings.

Over time, the new shoppers the programs attract to the stores, and the additional purchases that current shoppers are able to make, often results in an economic win for the stores. This work is a great example of how helping everyone afford nutritious food is good for families and good for the economy. Through this project we have reached nearly 40 co-ops in New England with information about food insecurity and the important role food co-ops can play. So far, we have helped 20 co-ops in New England improve, launch, or begin to develop food access programs, including 10 that serve Vermonters. We are excited about unique partnerships like these that empower communities to care for their neighbors and welcome everyone to the table. To learn more about the Healthy Food Access project, contact Faye Conte at or visit