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$1 Million Awarded to Address Systemic Causes of Food Insecurity

Bennington College has been awarded a grant of $1 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to launch a three-year collaborative effort with local partners to address the systemic causes of food insecurity in Bennington County.

Food insecurity—the inability to access affordable, nutritious food—affects one in eight Americans, or approximately 40 million people, and is particularly acute in southern Vermont. This collaboration aims to both address the pressing problem of food insecurity in the area and to develop an interdisciplinary and responsive humanities curriculum with students, faculty, and the community, creating a model from which other higher education institutions can learn and build.

This important undertaking will be a partnership between Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) and community, health, and public education partners who have been working to address this issue for many years: Southwestern Vermont Health Care & Medical Center, Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, and Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services.

This grant builds on the Mellon Foundation’s longstanding investment in Bennington College on a number of priority areas, including a just-completed three-year grant to enhance the quality and effectiveness of the College’s curricular and advising models, and support for the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education, a multi-college effort of Bennington, Vassar, Bard, and Sarah Lawrence colleges.

“We are grateful to the Mellon Foundation for supporting this partnership among our organizations for the benefit of Bennington County,” said Provost and Dean Isabel Roche, who will become Interim President of Bennington College in July. “This project will give our students a rich educational opportunity: taking on a complex and urgent real-world problem, blending academics and work experiences, looking at immediate needs and upstream causes. It will allow us to work closely with partners who have been doing important work on the front lines of this issue. I am confident that, together, we can develop resources that will be useful to other rural communities facing the issue of food insecurity.”  

“Quality food is a cornerstone of health, and there is clear evidence that food impacts recovery from illness. SVHC believes food is medicine and too many live in the shadow of food insecurity,” said Tom Dee, President and CEO of Southwestern Vermont Health Care (SVHC). “We are thankful for the Mellon Foundation’s focus on this important issue and are thrilled to partner with Bennington College and regional collaborators in developing innovative ways to address food insecurity and elevate health in our region.”

“As a public school district, SVSU sees every day how food insecurity issues affect our community, and we continuously strive to address those issues through outreach in our schools and through collaboration with our food service organization, the Abbey Group, and with the district Food Advisory Committee and Health and Wellness Committee,” said Laura Boudreau, Assistant Superintendent of Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union (SVSU). “We look forward to working together to create a unified community curriculum with components that can be used with our learners and their families.”

“GBICS staff and volunteers see the impact of food insecurity on a daily basis. We are currently providing food and food education to one in every four Bennington families,” said Sue Andrews, Executive Director of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services (GBICS), which runs the Kitchen Cupboard, a food distribution program. “It is our philosophy that health is impacted not only by medical care but also by the environment in which we live, the food we eat, and the behaviors we develop throughout our lives. We look forward to working with the College and the other community partners on this project.”

”This is an important opportunity for higher education to work with the Bennington community to address a complex issue: food insecurity. We are excited that we have such talented and knowledgeable participants from the hospital, the public schools, and GBICS/the Kitchen Cupboard to partner with us,” said Susan Sgorbati, Director of the Center of the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. “Food is central to everyone's existence; the ability to access healthy, nutritious food is a human right. With hard work, creative thinking, and collaborative effort, we hope to address this challenge with positive change.”

Faculty Support
To support the development of this curriculum, Bennington College will appoint a visiting faculty member who brings broad and deep expertise in food studies and/or systems, expand faculty member Yoko Inoue’s successful work in food justice through artistic community-based practice, and appoint a food systems practitioner-in-residence focused on community-based solutions to food insecurity.

Student Engagement
Student involvement will include five fully-funded Field Work Term work-learning opportunities per year with community partner organizations, from which students will gain insight into the complexity of the problem and learn how to develop and implement solutions.

Students will also have access to a competitively awarded Student Projects Fund, enabling them to generate their own initiatives and work with community partners to further their understanding of food systems and to experiment with new solutions.

Public Collaboration
Participation from local community members will also be encouraged. Throughout the three years of the grant, the Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) will host a public series of Community Forums on Food Systems in Vermont to encourage dialogue between students and community members about the barriers related to food security, share research with a wider audience, and articulate and advocate for systemic changes. These series will be announced via local media and the College’s public events listing.

Public education and community-based programs will also be offered. Bennington College’s student-run Purple Carrot Farm and the grounds of the Robert Frost Stone House Museum will both provide community farming opportunities and gathering sites.

Additionally, community partners and local organizations will have access to a competitively awarded Community Resource and Strategy Fund to implement catalyzing, collaborative projects that further the community’s understanding of food systems.

About Food Insecurity in Bennington County
Food insecurity–an inability to access enough healthy food to meet basic needs because of financial constraints–is a serious problem across the state of Vermont, and particularly in the Bennington region.

Hunger Free Vermont reports that one in ten Vermonters, and 15% of children under 18, live in food insecure households. These numbers are higher in Bennington County, where nearly 14% of the population lives at or below the poverty line, and 85% of public school students qualify for free or reduced prices lunches. Vermont Foodbank network partners provide food to 12.6% of all residents of Bennington County, over half of whom report having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities.

Addressing food insecurity in Bennington County involves overcoming challenges specific to life in a rural community, including fewer employment opportunities that provide a living wage; a lack of health insurance; the threatened erosion of government assistance programs for food, home heating, and healthcare; a lack of reliable public transportation, making it difficult to access nutritious food; and isolation, resulting in loneliness and disengagement, with substance abuse playing an increasing role.

These stressors of poverty can be accompanied by a lack of knowledge about health and nutrition, as well as limited cooking skills, resulting in poor diet. These “social determinants of health” have a significantly negative impact on physical and mental health.