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In recent weeks, there have been several articles talking about the harsh effects the pandemic has had on Vermonters, especially when it comes to shifting incomes, feeding families and challenges facing the supply chain for products.

Researchers at the University of Vermont have — again — used data to underscore the depth of the problem. In an article titled “Covid-19 Food Insecurity Remains High One Year into Pandemic.”

Last month, Rachel Leslie wrote that food insecurity reached record levels during the pandemic and remains above pre-pandemic levels one year later.

She wrote that nearly one in three Vermonters have been experiencing food insecurity at some point since March 2020. The new research by UVM shows 62 percent of those Vermonters were still food insecure one year into the pandemic.

The findings are the latest from a series of surveys conducted by Meredith Niles and colleagues in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences and Gund Institute for Environment at UVM to understand the pandemic’s impact on food security and food access. The study is one of the first to follow the same group (441 Vermonters) over a full year and builds on previous reports released by the research team at various intervals during the pandemic.

According to the article, more than half of survey respondents reported suffering a job disruption during the pandemic such as a job loss, reduction in work hours or income, or furlough. Of them, 18.2 percent were still experiencing a job disruption one year into the pandemic. However, only 1 in 5 of those with a job disruption received unemployment at some point during the first year of the pandemic.

Vermonters who remained food insecure in March 2021 were more likely to still be experiencing a job disruption and to have been food insecure before the pandemic started. In addition, those with greater odds of experiencing food insecurity include people without a college degree (4.1 times greater), women (2.4 times greater), households with children (2.4 times greater) and people under 55 (2 times greater).

“What we’re seeing is that the pandemic is likely to have a longer-term impact,” said Niles. “Many people faced long-term job disruptions and even though some may be back at work, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still facing financial hardships.”

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Among the sample of Vermonters, participation in food assistance programs also increased during the pandemic compared to before the pandemic, except for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. However, by March 2021 participation in all programs had declined compared to earlier in the pandemic: 18.2 percent decrease in SNAP/3SquaresVT; a 49.3 percent decrease in Pandemic-EBT; 8 percent decrease in WIC; a 19.1 percent decrease in school meal programs; 34.7 percent decrease in the use of food pantries.

According to the brief associated with the research, on average, respondents are less concerned about food becoming more expensive and not being able to afford food or access food assistance programs compared to in March and June 2020. Respondents who were still experiencing food insecurity in March 2021 were also less concerned about food becoming more expensive.

Based on 2020 data, respondents with food insecurity expressed greater worry about food access than survey respondents overall. And they were more likely to adopt coping strategies to address food access challenges, like buying foods that would last longer (77 percent), buying different and/or cheaper foods (66 percent) or eating less (66 percent).

Overall, UVM found that the coronavirus changed food habits and practices for respondents overall. Eighty-seven percent said they usually or always reduce the number of trips they made to the grocery store to avoid exposure to the virus, and 58 percent said they usually or always spent more time cooking.

While respondents experiencing food insecurity expressed greater concern and challenges accessing food, most of the respondents in the survey were unable to find all the food their households were accustomed to. “We are all feeling the impacts of the coronavirus on the food system,” Niles was quoted as saying at the time of the first look at food insecurity across Vermont.

The data provides a staggering presentation of just what the challenges are facing Vermonters right now. As the temperature drops, and the number of COVID cases continue to increase, the chances are good that the demand is — once again — going to strain the resources devoted to feeding hungry Vermonters.

Those challenges will be real, and must be met with solutions that make the difference toward better, more permanent solutions.

Rutland Herald, Sept. 23