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No Matter the Industry, We All Have a Role to Play in Fighting Hunger

As I write this, we are anxiously awaiting the US Senate to pass President Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation. It’s important that this passes, as it calls for the continuation of the Child Tax Credit program that has been instrumental in helping US families rise out of poverty.

So, why is the founder of a renewable energy company writing about food insecurity?

That’s easier to answer than you might think. Our business model is centered around circularity — from farm to table, and food waste back to the farm — where it’s mixed with agriculture waste (manure) to make renewable natural gas. Food insecurity is also circular — except it is a vicious form of circularity, where those that face food insecurity also face poverty; and that cycle, for many, never ends. If we don’t help our neighbors break that cycle now, we could lose a whole generation of Americans.

Where we were

Last year, I wrote about the large-scale food insecurity crisis our country faced due to the pandemic. At the time, Feeding America estimated that 17 million children are among the more than 50 million people who potentially could face hunger due to COVID-19.

Food insecurity is taking a toll on our young people and their success in the classroom. All studies show that children do better academically in school when they are nourished. In-person education helps our teachers understand who might be facing food insecurity at home; with distance learning, students miss out on the free breakfasts and lunches they usually receive and the attention from the teachers who can elevate their needs.

When I spoke to Oregon Food Bank CEO Susannah Morgan for that article, she noted that “we are in a 100-year flood of hunger.” 2020 was a year of constant struggles for our service providers around the country that work to feed those in need.

The task of feeding US families during the pandemic has fallen onto the shoulders of our food banks. From coast to coast, these service providers moved mountains and found ways to get food into the hands of those that needed it most — all while doing this with less help, depleting financial resources, and facing their own challenges and risks.

In 2020, the team at Vanguard Renewables knew that we had to do something to help our local community. So, we partnered with Dairy Farmers of America’s Farmers Feeding Families to distribute 17,000 gallons of whole milk to families in Massachusetts and Rhode Island over four weeks. This was a meaningful way for us to give back to our communities.

2021 saw improvement for many of those facing pandemic-induced food insecurity. In the first week of 2022, I asked Andrew Schiff — CEO of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank (RICFB), which has 150 member agencies — what he saw as the driving force behind this improvement.

“Things got much better in 2021, because of the response of the Biden Administration and the quick action of Congress,” he said. “Federal programs like the increased unemployment benefits, increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and the child tax credit put money in the hands of the individuals that needed it the most. They now could go to the grocery store and purchase food. These programs had a direct correlation to the decreased number of visitors to our state’s food pantries.”

As 2021 began, I wrote that we were unsure of what would happen with the expanded unemployment and SNAP benefits; thankfully, Congress expanded these programs. However, the increased unemployment benefits ended in September, the child tax credit program ended in December, and it’s believed that additional SNAP benefits will end sometime this spring. If Congress doesn’t act soon, those facing food insecurity in 2019 will be back in the same position.

I recently reached out to Morgan again, to get her perspective on how 2021 went and where we’re going. Morgan shared, “During 2019, we were serving 860,000 individuals; at the peak of the pandemic, we were serving 1.7 million individuals. However, last year, we saw that number drop to around 1 million.”

I asked her what she thought the drop resulted from, and her response was very similar to Schiff’s: “Public investment. The stimulus checks, additional unemployment benefits, supplemental SNAP benefits, eviction moratoriums, and the additional child tax credits. All these public investments made a difference in preventing hunger from staying at those 2020 levels.”

Where we are now

As I write this, we are anxiously awaiting the US Senate to pass President Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation. It’s important that this passes, as it calls for the continuation of the Child Tax Credit program that has been instrumental in helping US families rise out of poverty.

The expanded Child Tax Credit program was a game-changer for US families in need. These funds helped families keep food on their tables and assisted with costly child care, as parents re-entered the workforce or went back into their offices. The Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University estimates that these benefits kept 3.8 million children from poverty in November alone. With month after month of falling poverty rates because of these additional benefits since July, it felt like a step back when they ended in December of 2021.

With COVID-19 still raging across the globe and ongoing disruptions in supply chains, these things are creating a perfect storm for our country’s food banks.

If we don’t pass this once-in-a-generation piece of legislation, it will strain the poorest and hungriest in the US — at a time when there’s no end in sight to the pandemic.

What’s coming next

When I asked both Schiff and Morgan what they saw as the challenges for the year ahead, they shared a similar sentiment — inflation.

“With the rising costs of food, the individuals that are feeling this hit the most are families who are on the margins,” Schiff said. “In New England, these families are trying to figure out how to pay for the high cost of heat, the rent and feeding their families.”

“What worries me most is the purchasing power of individuals with lower incomes. The single most extensive anti-hunger program in this country is SNAP, which pumps billions of dollars into people’s pockets who don’t have enough money to purchase groceries. If the benefits don’t increase, it may mean a family can only have enough funds for three weeks instead of four, or even worse, only two weeks,” Morgan explained. “It’s important to note that these benefits provide a significant return on this public investment. Those dollars go back into our communities at our markets and grocery stores. The research shows that every SNAP dollar spent provides $1.79 worth of economic input into a community and the ancillary jobs supported by the retail food industry.”

Like food banks around the country, each shared that they have seen a significant decrease in support from their “regular” partners — such as grocery stores and food producers. The pandemic has led to more of us eating at home and not dining out, which has caused a drastic decrease in the amount of readily available food in the supply chain.

What we can do

When I asked Morgan and Schiff what we could do to help end hunger, the answer was the same: Call your legislators and encourage your friends and family to do the same. And if you can, donate to your local food bank.

Waste produced from food is an integral part of Vanguard Renewables’ business model; however, I’m more concerned that the wealthiest country in the world cannot feed its residents. This is a social responsibility that the team and I take seriously.

We have been dealing with food insecurity for generations. Yet, with the passage of the Build Back Better bill, we might be able to manage the problem.

At the end of our days, we will ask ourselves — did we do enough? I’m not sure I can say yes, but I sure as hell will try to make a change for the better.

Join me?

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