Bennington College To Explore Local Food Insecurity

Jun 10, 2019

Bennington College will use $1 million in grant funding to research food insecurity.

For the next three years, Bennington College will work with its partners in Southern Vermont’s largest community to understand why so many of its residents struggle to survive.

“This is a $1 million dollar grant that we received from the Mellon Foundation," said Isabel Roche. She's Bennington’s provost and dean of the college, and will become interim president July 1st.

Bennington and the Mellon Foundation – a charitable organization founded in 1969, endowed by the Mellon family fortune – have a longstanding relationship. Roche describes it as “on ongoing conversation.”

“In this case, the conversation really turned pretty quickly to the socially engaged humanities – how to bring the tools of the humanities to bear on problems of great import in the world," she told WAMC. "They encouraged us strongly to think about our local community, which is a perfect match with the work of CAPA.”

“CAPA stands for the Center of the Advancement Of Public Action," said Susan Sgorbati, CAPA’s director. “It was an idea by our former president, Elizabeth Coleman, to think about how undergraduates could focus on the urgent problems of the world, to not wait until students were in graduate school or out beginning their careers but beginning to research and understand what it takes to design and implement real world solutions to many of the very serious issues that we’re all confronting today.”

Those issues range from incarceration reform and forced migration to human rights and peacebuilding. The college just wrapped up a similar three-year grant from Mellon on forced migration that it shared with fellow liberal arts colleges Vassar, Bard, and Sarah Lawrence.

“So when we get a grant like this on food insecurity, it really goes to support in this case an interdisciplinary curriculum as well as addressing the actual issue of food insecurity with is significant in the town of Bennington,” said Sgorbati.

Almost 60,000 Vermonters – 10 percent of the state – live in food insecure homes, according to Hunger Free Vermont. It’s an even more pervasive problem in Bennington. A 2018 state report shows almost nine in 10 students at Bennington Elementary School qualify for free or reduced lunches.

The college is partnering with the town’s public schools, hospital, and an interfaith nonprofit to develop its curriculum.

“As one of the three community partners, GBICS will be very involved with the advisory committee and also working with the college on the program to provide the in-the-field experiences, kind of boots on the ground, because we are the ones who are actually  doing this work," said Sue Andrews, from Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services.

“Otherwise known as GBICS, because it’s such a mouthful,” explained Andrews.

The nonprofit serves people living in or near poverty in and around Bennington, offering food and housing services.

“The most critical predictor of length of life in the U.S. is what zip code you are born into, and you can pick up the newspaper any morning in Bennington and see obituaries of people who’ve died in their 50s and 60s, and much of this can be linked back to poverty,” said Andrews.

GBICS also works on getting people access to Vermont Health Connect, the state Affordable Care Act arm.

“And we also run a very active oral health coalition because the oral health outcomes in Bennington are abysmal,” added Andrews.

She estimates that GBICS serves 1,300 families in Bennington every year. One GBICS’ initiative is the Kitchen Cupboard.

“The program provides food – essentially groceries – for people in need," Andrews told WAMC. "And they come through our doors. We’re open three days a week. We see a lot of people who are experiencing food insecurity.”

Her hope for the grant is that it will provide a path forward for a community already struggling to put food on the table, especially in the context of growing climate change and the additional stressors it will put on the situation.

“Being able to work with a variety of partners including working with an academic institution will allow us to explore how we might be able to put together such a food system at a theoretical level but also to follow it with a practice of getting the food to people,” said Andrews.

For Bennington to get underway on the grant and start tackling food insecurity, CAPA has a lot of work ahead of it. Sgorbati says that first, it must bring together all the community stakeholders – from farmers and politicians to nonprofits and schools – and form an advisory committee.

“We’ll be teaching a course with a lot of our partners this fall, and this is really to bring consensus to all of us on what actually is the problem, what is our data, really beginning to understand what the problem is in rural areas, particularly in Bennington,” she explained.

Sgorbati stresses that CAPA isn’t entering the conversation around food insecurity with immediate answers. Its search begins with a blank slate as she turns her team of students onto the issue and has them research the topic not just in Bennington and the US, but around the world.

“And then," said Sgorbati, "We can begin to look at, okay, if we understand the problem, and we understand the best practices, how might we begin to approach this."