By Don Keelan
If not daily, certainly weekly, we hear the news (Rutland Herald) of the 50 million people nationwide, including 85,000 Vermonters, who experience food insecurity or, in some cases, no food. Why?
I believe the increase in food insecurity, at least in recent years, is linked to the impact of Covid-19 and exacerbated by the double-digit inflation attached to almost every food group.
The rise in the number of folks who make up the food insecurity statistic parallels the homelessness statistic: about 1,000 Vermonters before the pandemic, and currently, close to 3,000. Again, why?
There is plenty of food throughout Vermont, especially at this time of year. The fact that food is plentiful does not mean it is inexpensive or evenly distributed.
How to get food to those in desperate need was the subject of a round-table discussion at the Arlington Common in Arlington, Vermont, on September 22, 2022, sponsored by Green Mountain Academy of Life Long Learning (GMALL).
The panelists were from the Hildene Farm, Burr and Burton Academy faculty, the Manchester Food Cupboard, an East Dorset long-term farmer/grower, and moderated by the managing editor of Edible Vermont. The panel gathered at the Arlington Common’s Performance Hall and addressed an audience of 60. Due to the agenda’s seriousness, more should have attended.
It was clear to me, and I hope it can come to fruition, that the panelists believe there should be greater collaboration among the county’s organizations that grow, prepare, and distribute food. This writer has been advocating such a goal for years, and still, the nonprofit organizations involved in food distribution are of one mind, protect their turf.
Why, aside from inflation and Covid, do we have such a vast number of Vermonters with food insecurity when the employment rate is so low, businesses beg for employees and the governor noted there are over 20,000 jobs in the state waiting to be filled?
Not everyone wishes to admit it, but one community segment seeking food is closely connected to the opioid epidemic that has rocked Vermont, especially Bennington County, in recent years and is only worsening.
If someone with $100 to spend is afflicted with addiction, and their choice is between buying food or illegal drugs, it is not difficult to imagine where the $100 will be spent.
Our area is desperate for a significant addiction/recovery center. Such a center could provide medical treatment, counseling, housing, food, job training, and family support.
There is only one organization in our area that could be enlisted to provide these comprehensive services: Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. SWVMC now owns the former Southern Vermont College campus that could be repurposed to provide such services. The medical center has the expertise to recruit the needed professionals. It also has the skills to operate a multi-service complex.
What is needed is the medical center’s leaders’ willingness to commit to a costly multi-year challenge that will have little to no financial return.
Our area’s farmers’ markets, local farms, and food distribution centers can only do so much. The recent increased demand for their products will soon overwhelm them.
It has been said that we will not arrest our way out of the illegal drug crisis, and we will certainly not address the underlying causes of food insecurity by giving away free food to those families/individuals battling addiction.
A half-dozen years ago, a drug/Methadone Hub Center was promised to Bennington County but has not materialized. Now, we have an even greater need and opportunity to make it happen. What is missing? The willingness in which to do so.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.