Middlebury College students help local food efforts

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County businesses, institutions and individuals could play a larger role in donating food to low-income residents if there were more storage space, transportation options and publicity about the need for such contributions, according to a recent study of the local food system completed by a group of Middlebury College students.
The report, which will soon be delivered to the Addison County Hunger Council, also hints at a potential upcoming spike in food donations due to Vermont’s Act 148.
That universal recycling and compost law requires all Vermont households and businesses to have diverted their food scraps from the state’s waste stream by July 1, 2020. Advocates for low-income residents are hoping much of that unused food can be diverted to folks now going hungry.
The new report is the product of more than two months of research by four Middlebury students under the leadership of educator Erica Morrell. The senior students — Jennifer Ayer, Emma Shumway, Isabel Wyer and Matthew MacKay — are part of Morrell’s class, titled “The Sociology of Food and Knowledge.”
Morrell said she wanted to get her students out of the classroom and into research that could improve the quality of life for many low-income Vermonters.
“This is a knowledge course, but I wanted some way to bring knowledge to life,” she said.
Morell said she and Bethany Yon of the Vermont Department of Health had been chatting earlier this fall about ways of getting college students involved in studies of the state’s food system. Yon steered Morrell toward the Addison County Hunger Council, made up of leaders of area nonprofits who meet to explore ways of getting more food to people who need it.
The students’ collective appetite for doing a food-related study gained momentum after listening to guest speakers talk about hunger in Vermont and Addison County’s charitable food system.
“From those two discussions, the students themselves started mapping out what we had learned, where there seemed to be gaps (in food philanthropy), and where the students were interested in looking at more research,” Morrell said. “They arrived at two key things they were interested in: How individual people in the community come to know about hunger, the need, and how to donate food; and where does government fit into all this?”
Students began interviewing council members and other county officials who play roles in the county’s charitable food system. The list of interviewees included Addison County Solid Waste Management District (ACSWMD) Program Manager Don Maglienti, Middlebury College Director of Dining Dan Detora, St. Stephen’s Church volunteer Holly Stabler, and Lily Bradburn, local food access coordinator for Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE).
Here were some of their main findings:
•  More than 11 percent of Vermont’s 626,000 residents can be classified as “food insecure,” meaning they don’t have access to enough nutritional foods to stay healthy. Some of these Vermonters earn wages that won’t put enough food on the table because of other competing household expenses — such as rent, heat and transportation.
•  Most county residents — and Vermonters in general — tend to time their food donations with the holiday season.
Nonprofits appreciate these donations, but they produce two unintended consequences, according to those interviewed. First, nonprofits and churches often don’t have enough storage space to accommodate the volume of food given during late fall and early winter. And then the donations tend to subside during the spring and summer, when people continue to need food.
•  HOPE and other area food shelves each year receive some food donations that can’t be used: Either the food has reached its expiration date, or it has been donated because it is offbeat or unusual. In either case, the receiving church or nonprofit has to go through the time and expense of disposing of the food.
The moral of this story: Please only donate good food you would gladly eat yourself.
•  Middlebury College is a major consumer, but is not suited to being a major food donor due to several factors. College officials have taken great pains to limit food orders to amounts that students will predictably consume, and typically there is not enough leftover food to donate on a daily basis.
The report authors also noted the college’s meals are served on trays, and as a practical donation they would have to be individually packaged.
“This additional step may require resources that institutions do not have,” the report states. “Furthermore, donors may run into problems with food safety. Having hot food cool and then be reheated could create a hazardous food source and would not be able to be served. In addition, anything that may have been touched by someone, such as trays that were out for serving in the dining hall, cannot be given to charitable food shelves because of safety concerns.”
It should be noted, however, that the institution donates food left over from its occasional catered events.
•  The ACSWMD is suggesting five strategies for people in dealing with their excess food. First and foremost, the organization wants residents to limit their food purchases to what they can consume. The second priority should be to get that food to the people who need it, officials said.
The students believe purveyors of donated food need to get more information out on who needs the food and how to get it to them. To that end, the report authors are preparing two fact sheets. One will explain the basics of Act 148 and will encourage donation of excess food. The second sheet will provide a brief overview of hunger in Vermont, and the circumstances — such as low wages and high cost of living — that contribute to tight food budgets.
Ayer, Shumway, Wyer and MacKay said they learned a lot about the needs of the community in which they will continue to reside for at least the next six months.
Attending Middlebury College, Shumway noted, can at times be akin to living in a “bubble.” One’s food, educational needs and social network are all on campus, thus minimizing the amount of time students spend in the getting to know the area.
“Once we were given an opportunity to interact with the community and actually help the community, that was an awesome experience to have,” Shumway said. “I’ve often found myself thinking, ‘I wish I knew more about Middlebury and ways I could help the community I am benefitting from, but not really giving back to.”
The hunger/Act 148 report has provided that outlet for students to help. And it was exciting for them to realize they could make a real difference while earning college credit.
 “We realized there are definite gaps (in the food system) that don’t seem crazy-hard to solve, or at least help solve,” Ayer said. “But right now there isn’t a ton of time, labor and money for that to happen. I think trying to increase the education part has been one of our main goals.”
MacKay hails from New Hampshire. He’s impressed with how Vermont has emerged, through Act 148 and other initiatives, as one of the most progressive states in the union when it comes to conservation and recycling. He pointed to the annual Green Up Day as an example of how Vermonters are personally invested in environmental stewardship.
“Vermont is at the forefront, and I wouldn’t say they are done,” MacKay said.
The students got some major props from Bradburn and Maglienti, who are optimistic the report will help advance the charitable food system in Addison County.
“This is the kind of information that can really be helpful as Act 148 progresses,” Bradburn said.
Bradburn appreciates the emphasis in the report on using surplus food to help those who are hungry, rather than relegating it to compost.
Maglienti called the students’ work “fantastic. We all benefit from shared resources, and by using the expertise of students and staff at Middlebury College. The energy and enthusiasm the students bring to these projects helps a lot.”
Morrell often says “knowledge is power,” and she’s pleased her students are using their power to help people who are less fortunate.
“These students have a certain privilege in their position in Middlebury, and they learned a lot from the wisdom and knowledge of community members,” she said. “So in exchange for benefitting from their time and knowledge, the students I think felt a responsibility to use their position to get that knowledge to a next step, to make something positive out of the experiences of people in the community.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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