My 3SquaresVT Challenge, by John Sayles, Vermont Foodbank CEO

You know, I didn’t think the 3SquaresVT Challenge for me would be so much about eating for $1.72 a meal for 21 meals.  My wife is a terrific cook (and in fact writes a recipe blog for Farmers to You).  She creates delicious, nutritious dishes with the simplest of ingredients that she, my 10 year-old and I gobble down.  Reality = this is hard.  But that’s not really what I want to talk about.

My biggest goal in participating in the 3SquaresVT Challenge is to capture the hearts and minds of our neighbors who have never given much thought to what this program is about, and why it matters to our communities.

The Challenge is clearly about food, but it’s also about money and culture.  It’s about money because 3SquaresVT (a/k/a  SNAP, formerly food stamps) is an income support program as much as it is a nutrition assistance program.  People who don’t have enough money to buy the food they (and their families) need rely on the program to help fill that gap.  If rent was lower we might not require as much help with food.  Ditto health care costs, transportation, utility bills, child care, college tuition . . . the list goes on.  By participating in the challenge, many of us experience the added work of shopping harder and making trade-offs in quality and nutrition to have enough to feel full and satisfied.  But the sacrifice is financial because with more money we wouldn’t need to make the trade-offs.

And it’s about culture because we all see the world through the lens of our own cultural values.  We all hear stories of people doing extraordinary things to rise above adversity, but also stories of people who don’t seem to be making the best of their circumstances.  But I believe we have to reach people where they are, whether or not their choices meet our expectations.  It can be neighbors who grew up low-income and asset limited, with little support, raised in a cycle of toxic stress that can lead to poor choices and diminished opportunities.   There are neighbors with physical disabilities, emotional challenges, or cognitive deficits. It could be divorce, job loss, or health emergencies.  There are as many stories as people in the program, but the point is that we can sometimes have extraordinary expectations of ordinary people.  Ordinary people who need some extra help to keep moving forward.

My goal in completing the 3SquaresVT Challenge is to change attitudes about 3Squares/SNAP and our Vermont neighbors who use the program, and to persuade the unpersuaded about the value the program has to our communities and our state.  The first step to thriving communities is to nourish our neighbor’s bodies and provide the energy to live, learn, work and play.  Only then can we have a conversation about shared cultural values, and start really sharing who we are and what kind of life we want for our children, and their children.
I’m interested in your thoughts on how we talk about 3SquaresVT as a way for us to exercise our collective obligation to create thriving communities.

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