Hungry for Change
Feeding America, the nation’s largest anti-hunger organization, reports that millions of Americans don’t get enough to eat, and the number is rising. Many are working families above the poverty line. More than one-third of the hungry are children.
Why are people hungry in the richest nation in the world?
The simple answer is that eating is linked to economics. The modern food system is a vast, expensive, byzantine web of channels. In the past, people with enough money usually had enough food. But since the recession of 2009, that’s changed. Rising unemployment rates and cuts in social services have increased the number of needy households to record levels. As many as a million people may lose SNAP benefits (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) by the end of 2016. A working family that suffers a loss in income or benefits can become a hungry family overnight.
From the Feeding America website:
Poverty and hunger in America often go hand in hand, but poverty is not the ultimate determinant of food insecurity. People living above the poverty line are often at risk of hunger as well. Research demonstrates that unemployment, rather than poverty, is a better predictor of food insecurity among people living in the United States.
In short, food, that most basic of human needs, encounters a number of roadblocks as it wends across an unstable socioeconomic landscape in America.
Ed Fox, the new general manager for the Hanover Co-op, believes removing the roadblocks between people and food is a moral imperative.
“Food is a right,” Ed told me. “Just like healthcare is a human right, food is a human right, too.”
A little before nine one morning, I went to interview Ed at 2 Buck Road, the Co-op’s bustling suite of offices in Hanover. The building sits on a rocky slope, in a patch of woods. The grounds are home to plenty of deer and the occasional black bear. (I wonder if Ed knows this yet.)
Ed started on September 6. He replaces Terry Appleby, who led the Co-op for 24 years and retires at the end of 2016.
“What really drew me to the Hanover Co-op is that I’m all about food access,” Ed said. “That to me is huge.”
Ed is a congenial man with a frequent smile and round, wire-framed glasses. On the day we met it was early fall, and thanks to a quirky heating system, the office was chilly, like a Vermont woodshed. Ed wore a black fleece vest over a blue dress shirt. Instead of complaining about the cold, he wanted to talk about food.
In the early 1990s, Ed was a homeschooling father and a volunteer soccer coach in Barre, Vt., a diverse, working-class community in the shadow of a monolithic granite quarry a few miles south of Montpelier. Wanting to do more for his community, Ed volunteered for the Vermont Foodbank.
The Vermont Foodbank, the largest anti-hunger organization in the state, is located in Barre. It stocks more than 280 food shelves, meal sites, shelters, senior centers, and after-school programs across Vermont.
Ed had worked for Maple Grove Farms, a Vermont specialty food manufacturer, and had a strong background in the food industry. But, he admits, he didn’t know much about food insecurity. While consulting pro bono, he got a crash course.
“I didn’t understand the food-insecurity issue at all until I learned about it at the Vermont Foodbank,” Ed said. “It really opens your eyes. Food insecurity debunks the myths of who is hungry and why. It can happen to anyone. It binds people together.”
Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the lack of access to “enough food for an active, healthy life.” Simply put, it means regularly not having enough to eat.
According to Feeding America, one out of nine people is hungry in New Hampshire. One out of eight is hungry in Vermont. Combined, nearly 225,000 people are food insecure in the two states.
“Everyone understands what it’s like to be hungry,” Ed said. “I’m hungry right now, but I’m lucky. I can get up and get something to eat. Not everyone can do that.”
Based on Ed’s consulting work, the Vermont Foodbank hired him as chief operations officer. He would spend the next 10 years there, working to ensure that Vermonters had access to high-quality food.
“I’m very much into food choice,” Ed said. “The idea is if you go into a food shelf, it should be like going into a grocery store. It’s all about dignity and choice.”
Talk to Ed long enough and you’ll hear a lot of great stories. His favorite — and mine — from his career at the Vermont Foodbank is this:
One day, a client came in to the food shelf, a busy working mom. After shopping for the usual healthy staples — produce, milk, meat, bread, and so on — she saw a birthday cake. Then she started crying.
“Her son’s eighth birthday was coming up,” Ed said. “It turns out he had never had a birthday cake in his life, but she could take home one that day, and she was overwhelmed by it. That’s my favorite story because that’s what it’s all about: choice and dignity.”
Ed said he was drawn to the Hanover Co-op because its members and shoppers built an organization that mirrored that same philosophy, with an emphasis on choice, education, and food access. He cited Food for All and Pennies for Change as examples of the members’ commitment to a social conscience.
“It’s not the Co-op as an institution that’s having this huge impact on the community,” Ed said. “It’s the members. The Co-op is simply the conduit.”
Building on that, Ed said he wants to concentrate on four things in his new position:
- Embrace technology to make operations more effective and efficient.
- Tap the “collective genius” within the organization, among both employees and members, to build common ground and make a stronger co-op and community.
- Qualify the economic investment in the business: “You give us a dollar, what do you get back?”
- Qualify the social investment in the business: “You give us a dollar, what does it do for our community?”
Meet Ed Fox, Hanover Co-op GM
In the weeks ahead, Ed invites Co-op members and shoppers to stop by to meet and talk. Look for him in the stores at the following dates and times:
✓ Thursday, October 20, 11 a.m.–1 p.m., Lebanon Store
✓ Thursday, November 3, 11 a.m.–1 p.m., Hanover Store
✓ Thursday, November 17, 11 a.m.–1 p.m., White River Junction Store
✓ Thursday, December 1, 11 a.m.–1 p.m., Lebanon Store
✓ Thursday, December 15, 11 a.m.–1 p.m., Hanover Store
✓ Thursday, January 5, 5–7 p.m., Lebanon
✓ Saturday, January 7, 8–10 a.m., Hanover
✓ Thursday, January, 19, 5–7 p.m., White River
✓ Saturday, January 28, 8–10 a.m., Lebanon
✓ Thursday, February 2, 5–7 p.m., Hanover
Of course, true to Ed’s personality, free samples will be there, too.
“Feeding people is what we’re all about,” Ed said, smiling. “Everybody’s gotta eat.”