Talking about poverty and food insecurity

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BRATTLEBORO >> Several community minded people gathered around a table Wednesday afternoon to discuss the relationship between stable paying jobs and food security.

The Hunger Council of the Windham Region convened on Wednesday morning, inviting Founder of Strolling of the Heifers, Orly Munzing, Brattleboro Representative Tristan Toleno, Alex Beck from Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and Richard Berkfield from Food Connects to discuss available resources in the area for job training and employment. The council noted that economic security is vital to food security and several of the guests expressed ideas that may help connect citizens in their communities with employment opportunities.

"We consider any graduating senior in high school come July 1 that doesn't have a plan, whether it's employment or college — that person is at risk," said Beck. "That person is at risk of falling out of the community, out of the economy and I think we're all pretty familiar with a lot of the struggles that that comes with."

Beck said that BDCC is working to invest in the "educational pipeline" to ensure that students know about the jobs out there, whether talking about food systems or not. Other guests at the meeting, like Munzing and Toleno, discussed the Strolling of the Heifers Farm-to-Plate Apprenticeship Program, which recently graduated eight students that gain knowledge in skills in nutrition, culinary, problem solving, resume writing and more. Munzing said in the future, she hopes to tweak the program and work more with organizations such as Turning Point, a place for recovering people, and get additional wrap around services for that particular population of individuals.

Toleno, who is also the culinary instructor for the Farm-To-Table Culinary Apprenticeship, taught the class for the second year in a row. Toleno said their role as leaders of the program is to figure out how to help the students become successful and he said in his work he has noticed that the industry will try to "weed out the people that they think don't belong." Toleno says with his knowledge, he tries to provide the students with "survival skills" for this line of culinary work.

"It's much harder for food service establishments to get their brains around building people up over time and so I really focus on survival skills, so they'll last long enough to have them build a relationship with you and understand who you are at what value you can add to the business," said Toleno.

He further noted that this line of work in the food industry is very challenged in finding people to do the work, which he says leads to futility and stretching of people, and a "revolving door" where people work for only so long, become tired and then quit or get fired.

"What I see as our program's approach is to try and break that cycle and we can do it with 100 people at once but we can do it with a small cohort and try to break the cycle, build relationships and keep them in that zone where they're not vulnerable the easy exit ramps," Toleno added.

Later in the meeting, when discussing more of the youth population, Toleno said that the food service program at the Windham Regional Career Center is not well led, thought through, and integrated with the community and does not follow the rules of state system around technical education that he says is supped to have advisory groups.

"It's hard to imagine how it's ever going to break through if it's not managed differently," Toleno said, adding he has already submitted his concerns to WRCC. He added he would rather shut the program down for a few years and reinvent it than continue as it is going now.

Ultimately members of the council and others agreed that in order for these types of programs to succeed, more focus needs to be placed on collaboration between it and local food employer base.

"Tristan hit the nail on the head, the private sector will be doing the hiring at the end of the day and if you don't ask them what they need, then the level and quality of education being provided won't be sufficient and effective," said Beck.

Munzing chimed in, stating that she believes the Farm-to-Plate Apprenticeship Program is effective as they collaborate with employers and connect students to them as well.

Sue Graff of United Way of Windham County chimed in and noted that employers need to have a conversation around the culture of poverty and generational poverty. She said their organization trains its employees using the, "Bridges Out of Poverty" model.

"There's a really important conversation happening and an understanding and sort of an awareness and opening among employers to recognize they can't operate the way they've always operated and get the results they want, they have to address some of these issues and they need help at how to address them," said Graff.

Graff said she thinks whether it's the Bridges out of Poverty program or something else, employers need this type of knowledge and training about how to understand the dynamic of their employees lives and change the culture in the company around this topic.

"It's not just on employee, it has to be on employer as well," said Graff

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275


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