Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger - Burlington, VT
In a fast-food nation, it’s easy to forget that many Americans, especially children, go hungry. Existing federal nutrition programs are designed to be cost-effective in cities with concentrated poverty; these programs are usually managed through centralized decision-making. By contrast, Vermont is a largely rural state with a strong tradition of local decision-making. (For example, in southwestern Vermont, one school district has nine schools and eight separate, elected school boards.) Approximately 67,000 Vermonters, including 26,000 children, go hungry or are “food insecure” -- unable to get enough nutritious food to lead an active and healthy life -- according to the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger (VTCECH). In many rural areas of the state, families struggle to balance low incomes with other necessities; some must choose between buying food and paying for fuel to heat their homes during the harsh winters. The results of chronic undernutrition include stunted growth, cognitive dysfunction, increased aggression, and frequent infections.
Seeds of commitment
“Whenever services for children are discussed, I respectfully and consistently ask the question, ‘Who’s going to feed the kids?’” says Robert Dostis. The question is an old and intimate one for Dostis. As a child, he lived in New York housing projects, spent time in foster homes, and often went hungry. “What influences me most in doing this work is my own experience with hunger as a child,” he says. “Hunger hurts far more than the physical pain caused by a lack of food. When our most basic need is not met, the psychological and emotional consequences are equally painful and can last a lifetime.” Like Dostis, Joanne Heidkamp is a registered dietitian. As a teenager, she volunteered with the United Farm Workers. “I was deeply disturbed to learn that children of farm workers in Florida’s orange groves were often undernourished -- and that the local school district did not offer the federally funded breakfast program,” she says. Because of her experience among the people who toil to put food on the tables of the world’s richest country, she changed her major to nutrition, and committed her life’s work to ending childhood hunger.
In 1992, a group of professionals, concerned citizens, and state program managers gathered to address hunger in Vermont. They took a close look at the state’s existing anti-hunger programs and found them severely wanting. Meanwhile, the national Food Research and Action Center had created a model program, the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, which individual states could adapt. The Vermont committee formed a nonprofit organization using this national model as their blueprint, giving birth to VTCECH. One of VTCECH’s major challenges was to educate an unaware public that a hunger crisis existed in Vermont. In addition to its public-awareness campaign, VTCECH created community initiatives for food security, developed strategies to expand federal nutrition programs, and advocated for policy changes within those programs. VTCECH’s first initiative was to work with schools to start breakfast programs. When the organization started its work, less than a third of Vermont’s schools offered breakfast; today nearly nine in 10 provide a free or reduced-price breakfast. During the same period, VTCECH helped increase the number of children in the state who gained access to summer meals increased from about 400 to more than 5,000.
Through its statewide multi-media campaign and training, VTCECH is increasing the use of the federal Food Stamp Program by eligible Vermonters. Working with a range of partners, the organization also sponsors educational programs for both teenagers and adults. Among these is Cooking for Life, a collaboration with the University of Vermont Extension, which teaches participants how to prepare healthful meals on limited budgets. In the policy arena, VTCECH’s most important statewide victory is the recent passage of Act 22, which revived a neglected 1970s law. Act 22 requires every community to engage in a public discussion about the pros and cons of opting into the federal breakfast/lunch program. Prior to passage of Act 22, 60 schools in Vermont did not participate in the federal meal program. In the 15 months since Act 22 passed, 29 new school meal programs are feeding 11,390 additional students.
Passage of Act 22 offers one example of their leadership style. Dostis and Heidkamp respected Vermont culture; they understood that most Vermonters are proud of their resilience, resourcefulness, and independence, and resist mandates. So the leaders worked more indirectly. By reviving Act 22, which required local community discussions about the federal school breakfast/lunch program, a new dialogue emerged about the larger issue of hunger – a topic that previously had been ignored or downplayed by many public officials. Dostis and Heidkamp marshaled information about hunger for these discussions; for example, they enlisted local school nurses to report on low weights of children in particularly impoverished areas. Making what was essentially hidden hunger visible, though these communities, shifted school board sentiment toward the breakfast/lunch program, “Our biggest challenge is working with people who do not believe that hunger exists, especially the people in positions that can make a difference,” says Heidkamp.
Heidkamp and Dostis are “strategic about their resources,” says Penrose Jackson, president of the Vermont Health Foundation. For example, because they recognize that lasting solutions to hunger must address its root cause, poverty, VTCECH leaders seek alliances and collaborations with public and private organizations that focus on economic development and local agriculture issues. Dostis has co-chaired the Northeast Regional Anti-Hunger Network since 1997. He also has moved into the political arena. An openly gay man, he was elected to the state legislature in 2000, during a period when anti-gay sentiment was at its peak because of the statewide debate over civil unions. Dostis’ victory was due to the respect he had gained through his work on hunger, his persistence (he knocked on the doors of every constituent in his district – twice), and his talent for building positive relationships.“One of (Dostis’ and Heidkamp’s) strengths is that they approach the issue (of childhood hunger) without making people feel like they’re being blamed or shamed for what’s happening,” says Linda Berlin, a nutrition specialist at the University of Vermont’s Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences. “It’s about getting other people on board.” As part of her effort to develop a new generation of leadership, Heidkamp recruits interns from Americorps, local high schools and colleges. Through professional organizations she has inspired colleagues from around the country to become involved in fighting hunger.
Dostis and Heidkamp look forward to extending VTCECH’s reach into national advocacy and policy. To build added political support for child nutrition programs, Dostis may consider a future run for the state senate or possibly a higher elected position. But he also knows that, for now, he is most effective as both the executive director of VTCECH and as a state representative from central Vermont. “Now that we have worked with so many communities to implement breakfast and summer lunch programs, the really challenging work begins,” says Heidkamp. “Now come the more difficult questions about whether these programs are adequate to provide food security.”
More about Dostis, Heidkamp and VTCECH
“They don’t give people the sense that they are the leaders and others are followers. They recognize that everybody may bring to the situation their own perspective, and they are open to different perspectives. Their style is motivating. They make you want to pitch in and do all you can.”
- Linda Berlin, nutrition specialist, University of Vermont Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences
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