Gov. Peter Shumlin and advocates from across the state today launched a campaign to end childhood hunger in Vermont. First on the agenda, the Governor said, was pressuring Washington to give states funding flexibility to use local, creative ways of ensuring all children have enough to eat.
"Currently the federal government sends states surplus food for school and other nutrition programs," the Governor said. "We will ask for direct funding, possibly through vouchers, to enable the folks in each state who are dealing directly with food programs for children to buy locally, and choose the most nutritious food products that make the most sense for the children in their programs."
Gov. Shumlin said he will also urge other governors across the nation to press the U.S. Department of Agriculture for that flexibility when he attends the 103rd Annual Meeting of the National Governors Association in Salt Lake City, which gets underway tomorrow.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch introduced legislation seeking a waiver from Congress for Vermont to try such an initiative, but that bill was not approved. Gov. Shumlin said he believes such a waiver can be granted by the Obama administration without legislation; he hopes other governors will join him in pushing for that flexibility.
Under the current system, the USDA determines possible surpluses within groups of food types available both inside and outside the U.S. About 20 percent of the school commodities (now called "USDA Foods") are surplus, foods that the USDA purchases to keep the price from falling too low. The remaining 80 percent are purchased as foods that schools have indicated that they can use.
States select from a list of nationally available food products, and decisions are made on a state level to bring in those products from USDA stockpiles that can satisfy tractor trailer minimum loads. Products are shipped to states and stored in state-approved, privately-owned warehouses. Schools decide what products to receive from the available monthly USDA commodities. Schools "pay" for USDA commodities through a declining entitlement balance.
Under the Governor's proposal, schools would receive a debit or voucher from USDA commodity funds to allow them to procure foods from local distributors in the quantity, quality and format they need. This would allow Vermont programs to increase fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and other items grown, produced and processed in Vermont -- which has the added benefit of enhancing local economies.
The proposal also eliminates layers of bureaucracy, leaving more funds for food. Trucking distances and energy-consumptive storage would be reduced for a positive environmental impact; and the most important goal of providing better child nutrition is accomplished.
"This plan puts schools and the state in charge of the food being offered and served to our children," said Gov. Shumlin. "The Federal system is out of touch with child nutrition needs."
Joining the Governor to kick off the anti-hunger campaign at the Basement Teen Center in Montpelier were anti-hunger advocates, including Hunger Free Vermont and the Vermont Foodbank, as well as representatives of the Vermont Business Roundtable to voice the business community's commitment to the effort. The federal waiver request is the first proposal in what will be a broader, comprehensive initiative developed by Shumlin officials and others involved in fighting hunger in Vermont.
"School meals play a vital role in preventing hunger among Vermont's children. Hunger Free Vermont is pleased to stand with Gov. Shumlin in supporting this proposal, which will help to strengthen one of the best sources of nutrition low income children have by allowing schools greater flexibility to purchase a variety of healthy, local foods," said Anore Horton, Child Nutrition Advocacy Manager with Hunger Free Vermont.
"It's hard to imagine in a country as wealthy as ours and in a state as small as Vermont that thousands of our neighbors could be wondering where their next meal will come from," said John Sayles, Vermont Foodbank CEO. "However, in a recent study of Vermont households conducted by the USDA, 88,000 Vermonters were found to be food insecure--more than 25,000 are children under the age of 18."
Sayles said more families and seniors are finding it harder to make ends meet, making this a critical time to tackle the pervasiveness of hunger in Vermont's communities. He said last year alone, "our partner food shelves and meal sites around the state reported a 35 to 40 percent increase in demand for emergency food."
The Governor noted that Vermont is positioned to take a national leadership role on this issue, with significant hunger initiatives already in place (the Foodbank works with organizations like the Basement Teen Center to deliver food to children and young Vermonters, as one example), and a committed group of businesses and advocates ready to work together.
"This is an important component of our health care reform effort," Gov. Shumlin said. "Keeping people fed is critical to keeping people healthy; and keeping people healthy is vital in bringing down health care costs in this state and across the nation."