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Cornwall family learns what it’s like to be hungry through 3SquaresVT Challenge

CORNWALL — Dr. Anna Benvenuto prides herself on not only providing medical treatment to her clients at Addison Associates OB/GYN, she also tries to get to know them.
And she knows that several of her clients are from households barely scraping by, struggling each day to put enough food on the table. Some of these clients rely heavily on 3SquaresVT, formerly known as the Food Stamp program, which helps people buy groceries.
Last week, Benvenuto decided to walk a metaphorical mile in her hungriest patients’ shoes. She and her family joined more than 200 other Vermonters in voluntarily limiting themselves to a 3SquaresVT budget. It’s called the 3SquaresVT Challenge, an annual exercise in experiencing the hardships of hungry Vermonters, during which participants confine themselves to a food budget of $1.72 per family member per meal — the same constraints that 3SquaresVT clients face year-round — for one week.
“For me, personally, it’s really important to experience more what my patients are going through to feed their families,” Benvenuto said. “I hear about their struggles … and I thought it would be a good way to really understand, first-hand, a fraction of what they go through.”
The challenge, coordinated by the nonprofit organization Hunger Free Vermont, precipitated some temporary dietary changes for Benvenuto, her husband Jeff Taylor, and their two young children. They began their 3SquaresVT budget on Sunday, Nov. 17.
“We had talked about what we were doing and we went to the grocery store as a family,” Benvenuto said. “The hardest part was we had to stick to our list. Explaining (to the children) again and again that (an item) wasn’t on the list was hard for them to understand. Then getting to the cash register with just cash in hand and hoping that I had calculated in my head correctly with the amount of money I had was another thing.”
It was strange for them not to be able to pop some “extras” into the shopping cart. Family members also had to rearrange their food cabinets to make sure they couldn’t tap into any extra reserves.
“Starting the week, we had cleared out one shelf in our cabinet to keep us honest and on track,” Benvenuto said. “I remember thinking, ‘Here are our ingredients for this week,’ then looking at (the food) and saying, ‘Gosh, I really hope we planned correctly.’”
Benvenuto said it was dinner that proved to be the most challenging of her three daily meals, as meeting the $1.72 limit proved a little easier for breakfast (a piece of fruit, yogurt) and lunch (leftovers). Jeff and the children generally eat cereal in the morning. Jeff ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch using bread that he bakes. The couple’s 7-year-old son ate his noon meal at Bingham Memorial School through the free or reduced lunch program, and their 4-year-old daughter, a preschooler, brought packed lunch with such things as apple slices, cheese sticks, carrots, hummus or macaroni and cheese.
The dinner menu consisted of such dishes as bean soup (sometimes stretched to two meals) with homemade bread; tofu with noodles and salad; tuna noodle casserole and steamed broccoli; couscous, chickpeas and carrots; and homemade pizza.
“Everything was vegetarian except for the tuna fish,” Benvenuto said, a departure from the family’s usual eating staples that include more meats and proteins.
“We definitely eat more meat, chicken and fresh fish throughout the week,” Benvenuto said. “We usually have lunchmeat in the house for sandwiches and definitely a few meals a week involve meat and chicken. It definitely struck me.”
By and large, Benvenuto and her family made it through the challenge OK. She acknowledged that lower-cost homemade bread and garden vegetables allowed them to maximize the food they were able to buy without going over budget.
“I don’t think we suffered in terms of quality of food, overall,” Benvenuto said. “I think the biggest issue is we tend to eat a lot of fresh produce, and we had to budget in other places so we could have some fresh produce. We got some apples, bananas, lettuce, carrots and broccoli, and that was about it for fresh.”
Needless to say, the budget did not allow much dessert, though the children had a little leftover Halloween candy that came in handy. Benvenuto was able to squeeze some chocolate chips and butter into the budget in order to make some celebratory cookies to cap the week.
While the family made it through the challenge no worse for wear, Benvenuto acknowledged the stress involved in planning meals on such a tight budget. And as the week wore on, she realized the stress level for a bona fide 3SquaresVT clients must be much higher.
“The reality is, if we ran out of the food that we bought, we weren’t going to let our kids go hungry; we have the means to buy something else for them,” Benvenuto said.
That’s not the case for the truly poor, many of whom run through their 3SquaresVt allowance within the first two weeks of the month and must then rely on food shelves and/or other donations to get by, according to Vermont Human Services Agency officials.
“Going through the week, the thing I realized more is the constant stress (3SquaresVT clients) are under,” she said. “It’s not just feeding their family. We had the benefit of not worrying about housing, or clothing my children, or gas to get to work.”
UNDERSTANDING POVERTY
Marissa Parisi is executive director of Hunger Free Vermont. She was pleased to report challenge participants in all 14 Vermont counties this year.
“We really think doing the challenge each year helps the community have a deep understanding of what it means to be on a Food Stamp budget if you’ve never experienced that before,” Parisi said. She occasionally encounters some people of means who wrongly assume that 3SquaresVT recipients are playing the system for “generous” food benefits.
In fact, 3SquaresVt recipients saw a cut in benefits beginning this month, according to Parisi, from $1.80 per meal to $1.72. This cut translates into $36 less per month for a family of four and is related to a redirection of American Reinvestment and Recover Act money, according to Parisi.
“For some families, (the cut) was quite significant,” Parisi said. “People are getting less money to shop with than last year.”
With that in mind, Benvenuto and her family are donating last week’s grocery bill savings to programs helping hungry Vermonters.
“We will definitely consider doing it again next year,” Benvenuto said of the challenge.
Currently, more than 100,000 Vermonters (one in six) receive 3SquaresVT. For more information about the program, log on to www.vermontfoodhelp.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.
 
3SquaresVT benefits are lowered
VERMONT — The Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) lowered the amount of money provided to recipients of 3SquaresVT benefits starting Nov. 1. This lower benefit was the result of the end of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which was passed in 2009 to stimulate the economy and save jobs during the recession.
When the act was passed, it included a temporary increase in 3SquaresVT benefits for everyone. When the law expired on Oct. 31, almost everyone’s benefit went down. For example: A family of four in many cases saw a decrease of $36 per month, while most single people saw a decrease of $11.
DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone explained that this reduction in benefits was mandated by federal law and cannot be changed without a change in the law.
As the cuts neared, DCF officials urged those receiving support through 3SquaresVT to go online to mybenefits.vt.gov to find out about other DCF programs that may be able to help them pay for things like child care, fuel, phone service and utilities. They also directed these people to dial 2-1-1 from anywhere in Vermont to find out about state and local resources.

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