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Advocates organize to protest federal food funding cuts

MIDDLEBURY — State and local human services providers are sending a unified message to Vermont lawmakers as the 2018 legislative session approaches: Do what you can to minimize the impacts that federal budget cuts could have on programs serving the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
That message was reiterated at a Nov. 7 gathering of the Addison County Hunger Council, made up of farmers, school officials and representatives of myriad nonprofits and state agencies, all focused on food security for area residents who are either living in poverty or who aren’t physically able to get the nutrition they need.
Council members specifically voiced concerns about potential erosion to five specific programs, all funded through the federal Farm Bill that needs to be reauthorized by Congress. The five specific programs include:
•  3SquaresVT (formerly Food Stamp), a federal subsidy that currently helps more than 78,000 Vermonters with their grocery bills. The program each year brings in more than $9 million in federal money to Vermont.
•  The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides free food commodities to qualifying families.
•  The Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides nutritious food boxes to almost 3,000 Vermont senior each month.
•  The United States Department of Agriculture’s food commodities program for public schools, which brings in more than $2 million each year and ensures a wider market for farmers’ crops.
•  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed), which provides food education for low-income children and seniors.
Jenna O’Donnell, Hunger Council organizer, said the Farm Bill earlier this year appeared on a fast track through Congress, but has since stalled while federal lawmakers debate President Donald Trump’s tax reform plan. In the meantime, the council has been reaching out to various stakeholders of federal food programs to make sure Vermont’s Congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D, and Bernie Sanders, I, along with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D — know exactly what is at stake for low-income Vermonters.
“There’s a lot of grassroots support for becoming engaged,” O’Donnell said, emphasizing the need for public testimony on the value of federal food programs.
State Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, is a member of the Vermont House Appropriations Committee, which has a big say in how the state’s funds are allocated. She also chairs the Vermont Poverty Council.
“What I’m feeling, as we go into the legislative session, is that we are probably going to be very reactive to what happens at the federal level,” Lanpher said. “Things are already tight, and we’re not going to be able to cover all of the (funding) holes that are going to be created.
“I believe there is going to be a lot of ‘safety net’ breaking,” she added. “We’re going to have to make some very tough choices.”
That said, Lanpher encouraged council members at last Tuesday’s meeting to keep her committee informed about food-related programs that might be in jeopardy due to a declining federal commitment.
“We can’t do anything about it if we don’t know what’s at stake,” she said
Lanpher noted the state’s already tough financial situation is made even tougher by a federally mandated cleanup of Lake Champlain. So the state will have to allocate an increasing amount of its resources to the cleanup “or we won’t have drinkable water,” she said.
Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, is a member of the House Ways & Means Committee, which focuses on the state’s tax policies. Baser said he supports efforts to help those who are going hungry.
“To me that’s the goal — that we put you all out of work,” Baser told council members of the ultimate hope the state won’t need supplemental food programs because all citizens will be affluent and well fed.
“I would urge (the Hunger Council) to give some thought on what might be simple yet perhaps powerful policy that legislators who can identify with this might put forward,” Baser said.
But he added he believes some parents could be taking greater responsibility for feeding their children.
“If it’s the state or nonprofits that are feeding our kids, and it’s not mom and dad, what are we encouraging and developing for the future?” he asked. “This is a self-perpetuating story, if we’re providing breakfast and lunch and sometimes dinner for kids.”
Baser said more should be done to teach parents — and their children — about being providers in order to help break what he said has been a cycle among some families.
He pointed to the state’s current unemployment rate, which stands at around 2.9 percent.
“Where’s the education for moms and dads?” he asked. “Where is grabbing them by the collar and getting them into some place and saying, ‘You’re not doing your job and it has to improve?’”
Some council members told Baser a majority of families that use food subsidies have at least one parent in the workforce, but can’t pay grocery bills due to lower wages that have to cover other household outlays, such as rent and transportation.
And since Vermont is one of the grayest states in the union, many of those most reliant on food subsidies are seniors, council members said.
Council member Emily Landenberger, education coordinator for the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, counted herself among those full-time workers in the state who still qualify for some federal food benefits. In her case, it’s the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program that gives recipients access to healthy foods, nutrition education and counseling, and breastfeeding support.
“There’s a common misconception that the people who qualify for these programs are ‘lazy,’ don’t work hard or aren’t providing,” Landenberger said. “I try to provide as much as I can for my child. All of the other WIC moms I know are employed full-time.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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