What we've learned about hunger

Op Ed - What we've learned about hunger - Cornelius Hogan, Plainfield, VT, Sept. 20, 2009

Almost three years ago, the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger gained extraordinary support from the Northfield Savings Bank in the form of a $450,000 grant to pursue the mission of lessening hunger in Washington and Chittenden counties over a three-year period. Part of the Campaign's process was to create regional citizen councils in Washington and Chittenden counties. The Washington County Council has been co-chaired by Mary Hooper, Mayor of Montpelier, and me, and has had active and steady participation and coordination by organizations and individuals such as the Central Vermont Community Action Council, Food Works, The Family Center of Washington County, Central Vermont Council on Aging, the Vermont Foodbank, Community Connections, local churches, several local food shelves, local representatives of the Agency of Human Services, representatives of our congressional delegation, school food service officers, a school superintendent, and others, too numerous to specifically name.

A question was posed three years ago that is at the heart of the issue: Is it really possible to eliminate children's hunger? At that time I said "Of course it is possible, if we all work together toward that important common purpose."

We've been at this work now for almost three years, and it is time to step back and soberly assess what we have accomplished and the lessons learned.

First, there is no question that the idea of hungry children in Vermont brings out the best in all to deal with the problem. The level of volunteerism is remarkable. And the dedication required to keep pushing against the tide of hunger runs deep. As a result of many working together, we believe we have made important progress. More children in school are receiving breakfasts and lunches, and the nutritional value of these meals has been steadily improving, as more and more schools make local purchases of food. More children are being fed in summer and in child care programs. Based on ideas flowing from the Councils, the state of Vermont amended its "food stamp" (now called 3SquaresVT) policy allowing more families and children to be eligible for more food support, a very important measure in this serious recession. Through genuine and consistent interest by local media outlets, more and more Vermonters are more acutely aware of the problem, and more are willing to help in specific ways. For example, there are efforts such as that by Bob Nelson, at Nelson's Hardware in Barre, where the store donated a large portion of the cost of 20 crock pots, which were then used by Betty Hammond, food service manager of Montpelier Schools to teach a cooking course at the Hedding Methodist Church in Barre, for 18 families who learned the art of cooking nutritious crock pot meals. Such actions are representative of many local efforts across the county to cut into this nagging problem.

There have also been state-level commissions regarding children's poverty and hunger, where nutrition issues for children were front and center.

All of this work, volunteerism, good will, and effort has reduced hunger and improved the lives of children in Washington and Chittenden Counties. At the same time, we have no way of assessing the impact of the recent economic effect on Vermont families and children, but we do know that it is not good.

One unavoidable conclusion is that we can make a larger impact by focusing our efforts on policy changes in addition to food drives. Part of the problem is that, this extensive volunteering, donating, and working on behalf of the hungry appeals to our inner sense of satisfaction, and that what we do at this level is tangible. The steps we take are incremental enough to be understandable, and are steps that we can control. Ordinary citizens trying to affect national and state policy can be a daunting prospect, with little sense of cause and effect. While running a food drive, or cooking for the hungry brings instant gratification, it may do little to prevent hunger and can shame those we think we are helping.

Policy makers have taken advantage of this extensive human largesse by not tackling the roots of the hunger and poverty problem. The problem is easy not to confront as long as local organizations bring major volunteerism and resources to soften the problem. For example, consider how well society would tolerate children going without food altogether, as many would without the food provided by charitable efforts. Instead we tolerate the fact that children and elders are fed out of pantries and soup kitchens.

We will have a greater impact when we concentrate more of our efforts on policy changes that will feed children, elders and other vulnerable people quality food with dignity as part of their day. We must be wary of expending our efforts on pure charity, that people must come and ask for and which diminishes them, but that makes us, the givers, feel good about what we do.

The big conclusion after spending almost three years with the many good people and organizations trying to help those that are hungry and who suffer from poor nutrition is, that until we have strong national and state policy and action about alleviating hunger in our society, it will matter little how hard people and organizations work and how well they work together. Childhood hunger will be an unavoidable part of the American and Vermont scene.

But that won't stop us from trying...

Cornelius Hogan, Plainfield, Vermont

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