Symposium to take look at Vt. poverty

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College this Thursday will kick off a week-long fall symposium that student organizers hope will shine a light on poverty that exists in our own backyard.
The symposium, “American Poverty in Context,” will run Oct. 21 to 29 and bring a series of speakers to campus who have been involved in important work related to domestic poverty.
They include keynote speaker Harlan Beckley, the director of the Poverty and Human Capability Studies program at Washington and Lee University, and Joel Berg, a former Clinton Administration food security official and nationally known poverty and hunger expert.
Others speaking as part of the symposium include members of Project Health, a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide affordable medical care for low-income patients, and others involved with the Vermont Fuel and Food Partnership.
“There’s a lot of awareness for international aid, but not a lot for domestic poverty,” Yuan Lim, a senior at the college, said. “In the community, there is a lot of effort going on and projects initiated by townspeople, and we’re hoping to raise awareness on campus.”
Lim helped organize the symposium along with fellow Middlebury College seniors Veronica Muoio and Dan Murphy. The three dove into the planning process last spring, and continued to book speakers and spaces over the summer.
The group approached more than 20 different people about speaking, but they quickly realized that the big-name visitors that they were originally aiming for were, ironically, well beyond their price range.
“Some of their asking prices were between 20 and 30 thousand,” Lim said. “Our total budget was only around $8,000.”
Lim, along with Muoio and Murphy, quickly realized that they would need to change their approach.
“We decided to change our focus,” Muoio said. “Instead of big names, we started looking for people who are active in community organizations around Vermont.”
Muoio, herself, began volunteering last fall at the Middlebury Charter House family emergency shelter. Originally from New York City, Muoio has long been aware of urban poverty issues. This past summer, she interned at Project Health, the health care organization based in urban centers like Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Both urban and rural poverty will be addressed in the symposium lectures. Head of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger Joel Berg will kick off the week of talks at 7 p.m. on Oct. 21 in Dana Auditorium.
Berg — who worked for the Clinton Administration on hunger and poverty issues — will use new U.S. Census poverty statistics to demonstrate the impact of new governmental policy reform on the people who are clients of soup kitchens and food pantries in Vermont, and across the nation.
According to the new census data, in 2009, one in 10 Vermont residents lived below the meager poverty line. Between 2006 and 2008, it was reported that 12.1 percent of Vermonters could not afford to purchase enough food — a 42 percent increase since the 1996-1998 reporting period.
In his lecture, “Yes, We Can End Hunger and Poverty in the United States,” Berg will address these issues and discuss possible actions the Obama administration could take.
The day following Berg’s lecture, area residents and college students, faculty and staff will be encouraged to lend a hand at the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s weekly community supper. Volunteers will help prepare and serve dinner to those in need.
The symposium will draw to a close on Friday, Oct. 29, with a student panel on summer internship opportunities relating to anti-poverty initiatives.
“We’re hoping that the symposium will inspire people to volunteer,” Muoio said.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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