BRATTLEBORO >> The Hunger Council of the Windham Region held its bimonthly meeting Wednesday, Nov. 18, to discuss"Promise Communities," a new initiative of the Vermont Department of Children and Families.
"Promise Communities is a place-based initiative, which is a different way of doing business than the usual grant model,"said Emilie Kornheiser, Promise Communities Coach, volunteer coordinator at Groundworks and board member at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Kornheiser read a quote that further explained place based initiatives and connected it with the Hunger Council of the Windham Region. "I think that your work here sort of intersects with the idea of place based work in a lot of interesting ways. I think food grounds us to community in a way that really nothing else does and helps us create community in a way that nothing else does."
The Hunger Council of Windham County is one of seven Hunger Councils currently facilitated by Hunger Free Vermont. The councils consist of a group of local leaders who are committed to learning about hunger and improving community and household food security. According a recent press release, they address hunger by "educating community members about the local causes and effects of hunger and providing tools to improve nutrition and reduce hunger in their communities and beyond." At this meeting, members listened to Kornheiser as she discussed the details of the Promise Communities initiative.
"We call it Promise Communities because our goal is to reach and realize the promise of every child in Vermont," said Kornheiser. Promise Communities began as an initiative under Vermont's Early Learning Challenge — Race to the Top Grant; a $36.9 million, federally funded, four-year grant to help build a high-quality and accessible early childhood system in the state so that all young children will be ready to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. Promise Communities takes its integration from the Harlem Children Zone, a non-profit organization that helps poverty-stricken children and families living in Harlem through its initiative and programs.
Locally, Promise Communities seeks to improve kindergarten readiness for children in two Windham County communities: Green Street neighborhood of Brattleboro and the village of Bellows Falls. In each town, groups meet and share ideas and set priorities for their communities.
"It's more important that it's a meaningful geographic designation than meeting legal lines and borders," said Kornheiser.
Kornheiser met with the Hunger Council to insure that Promise Communities focuses its attention to issues of hunger and malnutrition faced by young children and their families in the region.
"A kid's food security and what they've eaten over their lifetime really ties into kindergarten readiness. Their sense of home, belonging and community also really affects kindergarten readiness."
Kornheiser said they are tackling these issues through a few different approaches, one of which is through results based accountability. This is accomplished by a collective impact model, where all actors that are interested in a common goal come together. In addition, a shared measurement system is used to collect data that they hope reinforces their activities through continuous communication. Part of the collective impact model involves connecting with partners on the state level that work with children and families. According to Kornheiser, some of these partners include: the Hunger Council at the state level; the Child Development Division; Headstart; Children's Integrated Services; local libraries, Humanities Council and Strengthening Families.
"It's not about providing services, but it's about how people become supported."
According to Kornheiser, Promise Communities hopes to work with 20 communities by the time that the grant closes.
Those communities are selected through a request for proposal and the community's submitted application. In that application, they looked at kindergarten readiness scores, access to care and early education, school lunch rates, and the "elusive" will of the community.
"Now that we've sort of set our norms and figured out how we want to come together, we've looked at our next step, which is conducting a needs assessment." Kornheiser said that she nor Brattleboro wanted to call it a needs assessment. "It's really a picture of what the community is right here and now."
Promise Communities has stated that "Each community has assets that create the place in which people live. Promise Community teams will review the assets to help inform the process of identifying the community and its needs. This will take place in the first four to eight months of the initiative." They further note that this assessment involves reviewing existing and gathering new data, developing indicators for measuring improvement, community conversations on data and using their Results Based Accountability toolkit to find strengths and gaps.
According to Kornheiser there is $200,000 that funds each community's initiative.
"It's enough money to get people to come together around a table, but it's not enough money to keep the people at the table. People need to see other value in it, and we're hoping that the community that's formed around this will continue after the first burst of funding needs."
In the remaining time of Kornheiser presentation she answered questions and gave a time for everyone to break off into groups of three or four where they discussed how they measure food security and how they measure anything related to the word "food." The small groups then convened in the larger group.
The remaining 80 minutes of the meeting involved an update about story circles by Evie Lovett; sub-committee reports, WIC updates and then a 3SquaresVT Challenge.
Lovett's update brought some members to tears as she shared three audio stories from people who have struggled with food insecurity in Vermont. Lovett's next step is to receive permission from the interviewees, and then share their stories to the public to show the intensity of hunger in Vermont through these human interest stories.
Food insecurity was addressed as a more pressing concern in the local communities as many members at the meeting said they had seen record numbers of families at their food pantries.
"I do find that we have empty shelves a couple times a week now," said Groundworks rep, Rosemary Gardner. "It's hard to say to people 'we don't have a lot, or you're welcome to anything that you can find, or you can come back.' We are seeing an increase in numbers." According to Gardner, 120 people came to the food shelf from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, November 13th, 2015. "That's the most we've ever had in one day, it usually averages around 80 people per day."
The Guilford Food Pantry Director, Pat Haine, said that last Thursday, they served 31 families in one night from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. "Usually we serve 22 to 25 families, we've seen an increase on a regular basis of new families coming. We still have the problem of families from the school not coming to the food shelf." There is a newsletter sent out to families that details the hours of the food pantry. Haine says if families can not attend the pantry's open hours, they should contact her at 802-257-0626.
A need was addressed at the meeting, but there were others that expressed their undying gratitude as well.
"Amazingly, we have unsolicited donations of all sorts of things and we are so grateful," said Sandy Vincent, food shelf manager at the Chester-Andover Family Center. Vincent said they are focusing on gleaning and bringing fresh produce to the food banks and shelves. She told her "favorite story," of a man who delivered potato seeds, which grew into a large potato harvest. In addition, MacLaomainn's Scottish Pub of Chester held a haunted house fundraiser and raised $1,500 that will go directly toward the Foodbank.
Many food related activities lie ahead. The Putney General Store will offer a "Sandwich of the Day," during the Putney Craft Tour and all proceeds from that specific sandwich purchase will go toward the Food Shelf. In addition, Breakfast with Santa, will be held at Next Stage Arts Project, December 20th.
Everyone left the meeting with a flyer that detailed the 2015 3SquaresVT Challenge, which runs Nov. 15th through the 21st. The challenge asks individuals to purchase food based on the average 3SquareVT benefit for their household size, which is about $37 per week for one person. There is also a 3SquaresVT Lunch Challenge of spending $1.76 for lunch. The challenge draws attention to the experience of living on a strict food budget and builds awareness of the importance of 3SquaresVT. People are encouraged to take the challenge and share their experience on social media to help raise awareness, they suggest using the hashtag, "#3SquaresVTLunchChallenge." To find out more and sign-up for the challenge, visit www.hungerfreevt.org/3squaresvt-challenge.
The next Hunger Council of the Windham Region meeting will be held Wednesday, January 20, 2016 from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.