Fuel or food: Somber choice faces growing list of families (Times Argus)

By Mel Huff

BERLIN - Even before the winter's soaring fuel costs hit Vermont, record numbers of Vermonters were struggling to get enough to eat or making do with poor quality food.

Information gathered last February and released in the 2007 Vermonter Poll shows 5 percent of Vermonters ran out of food during the year of the study. That confirms the results of the 2004-2006 U.S. Census Population Survey.

But the Vermonter Poll, conducted annually by the University of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies, differs in another measure of hunger. It reports that an additional 30 percent could not afford nutritious food. The 2004-2006 Census had the number at about 17 percent.

"You can tell your stomach to grumble and rumble for another day, but you have to have a certain amount of heat in your home or you're going to have a disaster with frozen pipes," observed Rep. Tony Klein of East Montpelier, who attended Monday's meeting of the Washington County Hunger Council.

One conclusion that has emerged from the Hunger Council's meetings during the past year is that as health care and energy costs rise, more of the working poor find themselves unable to buy enough food.

"It's no surprise that Vermonters are struggling with the rapidly rising cost of heating fuel - heating fuels are going up at a 30- to 50-percent clip," said Klein, a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. "Vermonters are spending today $800 million more dollars to heat their homes than four years ago."

That sum represents more than all the money collected by the education property tax in Vermont in one year, he said.

Klein said that the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, chaired by Robert Dostis, a Waterbury representative and the executive director of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, is working on legislation to expand the state's weatherization program for low-income Vermonters, with the goal of doubling the number of units weatherized from 1,500 a year to 3,000 a year for the next 10 years.

Many of those present Monday noted that increasing numbers of families are turning to food shelves.

"Access to our food shelf is up 130 percent over last year," said Hal Cohen, executive director of the Central Vermont Community Action Council in Barre. "People (under) a certain income level are not making it."

He said he is concerned low-income people can't afford nutritious food and in order to fill themselves, eat unhealthy foods that will cause chronic diseases later in their lives.

Carol Seaver, a volunteer for CERV, Northfield's food shelf, reported 14 new families had come in last month. In January 2006, the food shelf served 191 individuals; this January it served 296 people - a 55 percent increase.

Bob McNamara, the superintendent of Washington West Supervisory Union in the Mad River Valley, said he had just met with the regional superintendents and brought up the "skyrocketing use of food shelves." He reported that hunger "is on their radar."

The Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger has sent town-by-town reports on hunger to the Washington County town clerks to include in the town reports or make available at town meeting. The reports list food shelves and meal sites and include information on how to apply for food assistance programs.

The Hunger Council also discussed ways to expand and improve summer food programs for children.

Food insecurity numbers go up in summer, when children who qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches lose access to those meals, said Sarah Kunz, the summer food outreach coordinator for the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

Low-income families have to provide 10 additional meals per week for each of their school-age children in the summer.

For a family of four, calculating the cost at the federal reimbursement rate of $4 per child per day, the extra food balloons the budget by $160 a month.

"That means more kids don't know where their next meal is coming from," Kunz observed.

The fact that many children fill up on high-calorie foods low in nutrition is reflected in research that shows children increase their body mass index twice as fast in the summer as during the school year, she noted.

Three Washington County towns have summer food programs; so far the other 17 have none.