Hunger advocates hope to keep momentum after pandemic brought issue to light

Valley News
Published: 6/8/2021 4:52:18 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — As the end of the COVID-19 pandemic draws closer, local and state advocates warn that families who have suffered from food insecurity may continue to face such problems in the months to come.

“We don’t want to assume that we can go back to normal,” Upper Valley Haven Executive Director Michael Redmond said in an interview Thursday. He said the Haven’s food bank has seen an uptick in families needing free meals during the last year, as the number of people facing food insecurity across the country tripled amid COVID-19.

That problem will likely continue to affect many middle- and low-income families for a while, even as others return to “normal,” Redmond said.

“This recovery is uneven,” Redmond said. “The unemployment rate is higher for many people.”

Redmond and other advocates for eradicating hunger spoke about the issue during an event at The Upper Valley Haven, which framed the pandemic as a chance to shed light on the prevalence of food insecurity in Vermont and New Hampshire.

“This has really ripped off the bandages hiding inequalities in America,” Joel Berg, CEO of the nonprofit Hunger Free America, said in an interview following the event Thursday. Berg, who travels around the country discussing food insecurity issues, noted that many people were already experiencing hunger before the pandemic hit – the outbreak of COVID-19 just increased that number and drew more attention to the issue.

“People who were already poor and hungry became poorer and hungrier,” he said, adding that many people on the edge of poverty found themselves facing food insecurity for the first time during COVID-19.

Many speakers during the event also called on federal and state governments to continue to focus funding on food insecurity. During the last year, federal funding paid for resources like the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, which supplied thousands of boxes of food for people in need at the height of the pandemic. That program ended last month.

“When the pandemic hit there was, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, a commitment to funding hunger programs,” U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said at the event Thursday. “We’ve got to sustain that.”

Other speakers discussed the efforts already being put into place to continue supporting families facing hunger after COVID-19 is over. Erica Campbell, an aide to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told the crowd that Sanders has reintroduced the universal school meals bill which would provide free meals for all students. The bill, which received little support when it was first introduced two years ago, now has multiple co-sponsors and support from organizations across the country, Campbell said.

“This is the time,” she added.

Berg, the keynote speaker for Thursday’s event, said he supported the bill and discussed the larger implications of the federal government’s response to the food insecurity crisis during the pandemic. Pointing to the federal “pandemic EBT” program to provide additional funds for families to buy food during COVID-19, Berg said that public policy is key to addressing food insecurity in the United States, even long after the pandemic is over.

“I think this is more than about hunger. This is a fight for the soul of this country. Can we prove progressive government works?” Berg said. “Nothing is more concrete, nothing is more tangible, than these federal programs significantly ending or reducing hunger.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 727-3216.
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