Expert puts Vermont poverty in context

MIDDLEBURY — One in 12 households in Vermont could not afford to put food on the table between 2006 and 2008, Joel Berg told a small group of Middlebury College students last Friday.
Berg kicked off Middlebury College’s fall symposium, “American Poverty in Context” at the end of last week in a lunchtime discussion session at the college by addressing an issue that, for Vermonters, hit close to home.
A former Clinton Administration food security official, Berg now lives and works in New York City where he advocates for poverty policy reform and is attempting to mobilize those affected by such policies at a grassroots level.
Food stamp programs across the nation are one area that could do with improvement, according to Berg. Vermont, he says, is doing slightly better than the rest of the nation in this regard.
“I love the fact that Vermont has renamed the program,” Berg said of the 3SquaresVT program. “The name suggests that it is promoting health.”
Berg takes issue with food stamps because, having lived on only food stamps for five consecutive days earlier this year, he claims that food stamp provisions do not allow those using them to purchase healthy options.
“I couldn’t buy a single piece of fresh fruit for the entire five days,” he said. “Things like whole-wheat pasta were also too costly.”
Nutrition tends to go out the window when there is barely enough food on the table, he said.
Berg also argues against those who make the argument that eating and promoting locally produced foods is the solution to poverty.
Berg says that organic food gurus and farm-to-table advocates like Alice Waters — a restaurant owner and food activist in Berkeley, Calif. — are not taking lower-income families into consideration when they make the claim that higher food prices are a good thing for communities and their economies.
“People like Alice Waters claim that eating locally is the answer to our major poverty problem,” he said. “And people are saying this when 49 percent of Americans can’t afford the low-priced food.”
Along with cost, time also presents an issue for low-income households.
“People don’t have time to chop and cook food from scratch,” he said. “We need something that’s both healthy and convenient.”
Skipping breakfast is another major kink in the system, according to Berg. Students, who are given free school lunch and are supported by food stamps for dinner, are left to fend for themselves in the morning.
“The system is fundamentally broken because a lot of rural school districts don’t serve breakfast,” he said.
Poverty may not seem like a major issue in Vermont to some, Berg said, but that is only because of what he called “the state’s self-image.”
“Fewer people are aware, so it seems like Vermont doesn’t have problems when it really does,” he said. “It’s not all Ben and Jerry’s. People don’t realize that their neighbors might have problems.”
The symposium continues on Thursday, Oct. 28, at 4:30 p.m. with a lecture by Ingrid Pixley and Doug Sinclair on “Housing Issues, Homelessness and Community Action in Vermont.”
The lecture will take place in room 201 of the Davis Family Library.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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