‘Tough pill to swallow’: Vermont food groups dial back on assistance as federal funds expires

At the Northeast Kingdom Council on Aging, Herb Will, the organization’s director of nutrition, is writing a letter he does not want to send.

“We’re crafting a letter that is seeking to try to discern whether the seniors, through their own individual judgment, feel that they need to continue receiving seven meals, if they are receiving seven meals,” Will said recently at the dining room of the Good Living Senior Center in St. Johnsbury.

The letter is effectively asking seniors to give up two meals a week – the ones that arrive frozen on Fridays, so people have a supper to pop in the microwave on Saturday and Sunday.

“To all of a sudden cut that person down by two meals a week, that’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Herb Will, Northeast Kingdom Council on Aging

It’s a cost-cutting measure for the NEK Council on Aging, which contracts with 14 meal-distribution sites, including the Meals on Wheels hub in downtown St. Johnsbury.

“You know, it’s not something that we wanted to do, but it’s a capacity issue,” Will said. “There’s the financial constraints.”

The council has spent the past two years trying to convince more needy seniors to accept home-cooked, nutritious meals.

Meals like the one that Meals on Wheels director Diane Coburn has on the menu today.

“Fresh mashed potatoes, Swiss steak with broccoli and a fresh orange,” Coburn said. “Now one person’s not going to the store and cook all that, and they’re getting a well-rounded meal.”

But the supplemental federal funding that allowed the Council on Aging to boost meal supports by 40% over the past two years has run dry.

And now facing a mid-year budget shortfall, the organization finds itself in the awkward position of asking Northeast Kingdom elders to get by on fewer calories.

“There’s always that concern that they may not have food for the weekend. And that certainly tugs at your heartstrings,” Will said. “If all of a sudden they decide, ‘OK, we understand that the pinch is there and we need to reduce,’ you know, in some cases our meals may be the only meals they’re consuming.”

Anore Horton, with Hunger Free Vermont, speaks at a rally in support of universal school meals last week.

Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, said the austerity measures being deployed in the Kingdom are, or soon will be, taking hold at other feeding organizations in Vermont.

“If you ask an older Vermonter who’s living in St. Johnsbury … ‘We can’t really afford to give you seven, would you be OK with five?’ They’re going to say, ‘Yes,’” Horton said. “And the thing about this that’s so painful is that it took a lot, it took a lot for our older Vermonters in particular to accept the service of getting healthy meals delivered every day.”

Pandemic-era supports such as expanded unemployment benefits, federal child tax credits, free school meals and coronavirus relief aid have disappeared, Horton said.

But the hunger that revenue held at bay is still here.

Surveys show that lower-income households especially have yet to recover from the financial effects of COVID-19. Horton said the pandemic revealed a hidden universe of families who needed help before the pandemic, but weren’t able, or willing, to ask for help until the feds amped up programs.

“At the end of the day it’s just, you have to split the pie and you have to make some tough choices, and it’s never easy.”

Chittenden Rep. Jim Harrison

Horton and other food security advocates are asking lawmakers to soften the transition by allocating $6 million to the Vermont Food Bank next year, and using state funds to keep the universal school meals program going.

“We are all really concerned about what is going to happen if … we don’t make permanent any of these kind of temporary structural changes that happened during the pandemic,” Horton said.

A bill making its way through the Legislature would use about $28 million in state funds to keep the school meals program going for one more year.

Lawmakers, however, have been unable to identify a longer-term funding mechanism.

And while the Food Bank got a significant state allocation for its current budget cycle, its request for $6 million for next year’s budget has not, as of yet, made it into the Legislature’s spending plan.

“You know, we all support the role and the mission of the Food Bank, and we all want to do what we can for help, but you can’t do everything,” said Chittenden Rep. Jim Harrison.

Harrison, who serves on the House budget-writing committee, said elected officials may have an unprecedented about of revenue to work with this session. But he said food security isn’t the only sector that needs help. Mental health agencies and visiting nurses among others, he said, are in similarly dire predicaments.

A sign jutting from a building with white columns
The Good Living Senior Center in St. Johnsbury is the food preparation site for a local Meals on Wheels program.

“At the end of the day it’s just, you have to split the pie and you have to make some tough choices, and it’s never easy,” he said.

John Sayles, executive director of the Vermont Food Bank, said that pre-pandemic, the organization was spending about $750,000 a month on food. Right now, that monthly bill is about $1.1 million.

Sayles said even that amount isn’t enough to meet requests from food shelves and other programs the organization subsidizes.

Two years ago, the Food Bank got a $9 million donation from billionaire MacKenzie Scott. But Sayles says half that gift has already gone toward core operating costs.

In the absence of increased state support, Sayles said, the Food Bank will have to “do the best we can with what we have.”

“We’ll probably end up purchasing somewhat less food than we would otherwise, and we may have to tighten our belts in other ways,” he said.

For Herb Will, at the Northeast Kingdom Council on Aging, it’s meant tightening that belt to the point of discomfort.

“You know, to all of a sudden cut that person down by two meals a week,” Will said, “that’s a tough pill to swallow.”

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