With the holidays just around the corner, we begin that annual rite of counting blessings. We should be humbled knowing that many families in Washington County are hungry today.
In fact, one in five children here is considered food insecure, or lacking the access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources.
At least 37 percent of grade school and high school students in Washington County are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and 40 percent of those students are participating in school breakfast programs.
In all, more than 8,300 county residents are on 3SquaresVT (formerly known as food stamps), and that number has increased 8 percent since 2011.
But we can make a difference.
Each November during National Hunger and Homelessness Week (the week before Thanksgiving), Hunger Free Vermont asks Vermonters to build awareness about food insecurity by taking the 3SquaresVT Challenge. The challenge seeks to highlight what it is like to eat on the average 3SquaresVT benefit — about $36 a week for a single person.
The purpose of the challenge is not to emulate the reality of food insecurity for Vermonters — many of whom may rely on a variety of resources to meet their families’ needs — but to draw attention to the experience of living on a strict food budget and how that may or may not change your daily life both physically and psychologically as a participant.
The many people who have taken the challenge have learned firsthand what it is like to try to make ends meet with the average benefit. This learning opportunity is an experience that many groups take advantage of throughout the year, not just during National Hunger and Homelessness Week.
For example, Dr. Lewis First, a regular columnist in our Sunday edition, and many of his colleagues at Fletcher Allen Health Care took the challenge in the spring as a way to help understand how many of their patients struggle to eat well on a limited budget.
There are reasons this is called a challenge.
According to Hunger Free Vermont, 13 percent of all Vermont households experience hunger or food hardship. Many Vermonters find this number surprising. In the United States, a country with so much wealth, it is inconceivable that there are people who struggle to meet their basic needs. And yet, hunger is a daily reality for Americans in every state. Lack of affordable housing, low wages, high unemployment, a decrease in the number of local, affordable grocery stores, and lack of public transportation all contribute to hunger and food insecurity in Vermont.
That is more than 84,000 Vermonters of all ages who live in food insecure households, or 14 percent of the state’s population.
At least 32 percent of Vermonters cannot afford either enough food or enough nutritious food.
And at least 12,200 Vermont children depend on food shelves each month.
The effects of hunger on children can be detrimental to their health, well-being and lifelong success. Children living in food insecure homes are at greater risk for poor health, nutritional deficiencies and obesity, as well as developmental delays, poor academic achievement, depression, and increased aggressive or hyperactive behavior. Hunger and obesity exist in the same households.
Participation in 3SquaresVT reduces food insecurity and improves children’s diet quality; decreases risk of poor health, anemia, diabetes and malnutrition; increases achievement in math and reading; and is associated with decreases in child abuse. Participation in school and out-of-school meals reduces risk for diabetes and obesity in school-age children and improves student behavior, social interactions and academic performance
Too many Vermonters are hungry today. The challenge will, without question, open your eyes. That perspective should convince all of us that any hungry Vermonter is too many.
To sign up for the challenge, go to www.hungerfreevt.org/do/3squaresvt-challenge.
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