Vermont Foodbank aims to curb hunger through collaboration


Log on to the Vermont Foodbank's new website and you may be surprised to see the latest way the state's primary supplier for community cupboards, soup kitchens and shelters hopes to help the one in four Green Mountain residents struggling with hunger.

The statewide nonprofit, marking its 30th anniversary, is continuing to negotiate deals with manufacturers and distributors, contract with local farms to grow and glean produce, and collect meat, dairy and other perishable donations from supermarkets and restaurants.

But even though the Foodbank can boast to a $7 million annual budget (add in donated food and labor and the figure rises to $20 million) and warehouses in Brattleboro, Barre and Rutland that collectively provide about 10 million pounds of meal staples, it continues to see demand rise.

That's why, be it on or a Hunger Action Conference that drew 300 people last week to Killington, the organization is linking to a growing group of health and human service agencies, schools, spiritual communities, and public and private philanthropic organizations.

"While we're doing some really great work, we're serving more and more people," says Judy Stermer, director of communications and public affairs. "How do we really address the root causes of hunger and poverty? Our approach is one of collaboration."

On Friday, representatives of 225 local programs served by the Foodbank met with state and national anti-hunger advocates, starting with keynote speaker Smita Narula, co-author of the International Human Rights Clinic study "Nourishing Change: Fulfilling the Right to Food in the United States."

"You are on the front lines of what I see as a tremendous human rights struggle," she told the audience. "It's not OK that 1 in 7 Americans is struggling to put food on the table. No one should go hungry."

Narula said the root problem is poverty, which leads people to buy cheaper processed foods, which leads to such health issues as obesity and diabetes, which leads to rising medical costs and further debt.

The solution, she continued, is not only providing food in the short term but also helping people help themselves in the long term through better wages, benefits, housing and support services.

"Ending hunger is not a political priority in this country," Narula said, "and that is a deep moral failing."

The latest "Hunger in America" report shows Vermont Foodbank recipients span the demographic spectrum. More than 20 percent are children, while nearly the same number are elderly or are part of a military veteran's household. Some 60 percent of supported families report at least one member employed in the past year, although that job was nearly six times more likely to be part-time in a world of less full-time work.

The Foodbank, as part of its new strategic plan, wants all Vermonters to have enough to eat, be healthy and able to take action to end both hunger and poverty.

"In order to do these things," chief executive officer John Sayles told the audience, "it takes everyone building deeper and more intense partnerships, because those are the basis for culture and systems change."

To demonstrate such collaboration, the conference featured representatives of the state agencies of Education and Natural Resources, as well as Hal Cohen, head of the Agency of Human Services.

"In order to help move a family out of poverty," Cohen said, "the first thing we need to do is meet their basic needs."

As the state's largest hunger-relief organization, the Foodbank is funded 70 percent by community giving and the rest by corporate and government support. But despite the nonprofit's productivity — it spends 90 cents of every dollar raised on direct services, as confirmed by the watchdog website — people aren't donating like they used to.

Foodbank contributions remained steady with the start of the recession in 2008 and swelled in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. But the organization has faced budget shortfalls or flat giving in subsequent years even as demand for its services continues unabated.

"We're doing what we can with what we have," Sayles said. "But we're not going to be able to solve hunger or poverty alone. This is going to take all of us working together."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and correspondent who can be contacted at


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