It is Easter weekend. Because of the pandemic, it is not a traditional holiday weekend.

Families across Vermont continue to struggle as a result of the pandemic and the economic fallout that has resulted from it. As a state, we already had food insecurity issues. Just this past fall, the University of Vermont released a report that showed just how hard the challenge has become.

Since the pandemic’s onset, a UVM research team found:

— Nearly 30% of Vermonters have experienced food insecurity — nearly triple 2018 levels — highlighting the increased hardship experienced across the state.

— Roughly one in four respondents are eating fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, suggesting a decrease in diet quality. Also, people are eating less red meat and seafood, compared to before the pandemic.

— 33% of respondents used food-assistance programs. One in five households (19.1%) participated in 3SquaresVT (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/SNAP). Nearly 15% used a food pantry.

— Nearly 40% of households faced job disruptions (25% lost jobs, 35% reduced income, 20% furloughed). Of households with job disruptions, almost 40% experienced food insecurity as well.

— Households with greater odds of food insecurity include: those making less than $50,000 (six times greater), those with a job loss or disruption (2.4 times greater), those without a college degree (2.1 times greater) and those with children (two times greater).

Concerns about food costs and access to food assistance are rising. 71% of respondents felt concerned about food becoming more expensive, up from March. Many worried about others learning about their use of aid programs.

Vermonters are hunting, gardening, foraging and preserving more. 42% reported home food procurement efforts since COVID-19, including many for the first time.

The results mirror nationwide trends. America is starting to claw its way out of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but food insecurity persists, especially for children and older adults, the Associated Press reported this week.

Food banks around the U.S. continue giving away far more canned, packaged and fresh provisions than they did before the virus outbreak tossed millions of people out of work, forcing many to seek something to eat for the first time. For those who are now back at work, many are still struggling, paying back rent or trying to rebuild savings.

“We have all been through an unimaginable year,” said Brian Greene, CEO of the Houston Food Bank, the network’s largest. It was distributing as much as 1 million pounds of groceries daily at various points during the pandemic last year.

Data from Feeding America, a national network of most food banks in the U.S., shows that its members dispensed far more in the last three months of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.

The food banks that agreed to let Feeding America publicly share their data, 180 out of 200 total, collectively distributed far more food — about 42% — during the last quarter of 2020 than in the same period of 2019. The amount of food allotted in the last quarter slipped just slightly from the previous three months, down around just 1%.

According to the AP report, when COVID fears shuttered schools around the U.S. last spring, school districts nationwide suddenly had to get food to students who rely on free lunches even in the best times.

The number of free meals districts served to children whose families meet income criteria fell sharply: Nationwide, approximately 1.65 billion fewer breakfasts and lunches were served by child food service programs between March and November 2020 than were served March through November 2019 — a decrease of 30%.

And since the pandemic began, many older adults in the U.S. have turned to food banks, Meals on Wheels home deliveries and other charities to get enough to eat.

Over $1.675 billion in emergency funding has gone to nutrition programs under the Older Americans Act to pay for food, gas and drivers to deliver meals, along with masks, gloves and sanitizer to protect staff.

We cannot ignore this threat to our society. We must be mindful of the problem. And now we must do all we can to make sure Vermonters are not going hungry.

If you are in need of food assistance, call 1-800-642-5119.

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