Foodbank aims to serve social equity

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BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Foodbank's mission of "diversity and inclusion" used to mean providing a varied menu for all. But with socioeconomic divisions increasing, the state's primary supplier for community cupboards, soup kitchens and shelters now views that call differently.

"We're seeing the results of a lack of equity in our communities," chief executive officer John Sayles says. "We're never going to end hunger until we understand the issue."

That's why the non-profit organization, which operates a regional warehouse in Brattleboro, is educating workers from more than 200 local food shelves and free meal sites about how to discover and deal with a wide range of personal bias.

"How do we make sure we are hospitable and welcoming to everyone?" Dr. Jude Smith Rachele told 300 attendees at the Foodbank's recent annual Hunger Action Conference in Killington. "We can't assume that just because we have laws in place everything's OK. We have to put some skin in the game and ask, 'How can we make things better?'"

Rachele, a New Jersey native who earned her doctorate in England, moved to Vermont in part for its progressive reputation. But as head of the Bennington County-based cultural transformation agency Abundant Sun, she knows the state has its challenges.

"What do people say about Vermont," she asked the conference crowd, "when we talk about race?"

Almost in unison, attendees from health and human service agencies, schools, spiritual communities and public and private philanthropic organizations noted it's the nation's second-whitest state.

"And then the conversation just ends," she said. "But we are more than the sum total of any one aspect of diversity. You have to look at inclusion from all angles."

Rachele projected a slide featuring such words as "poor," "disabled," "undereducated" and "underemployed."

"These people " she began, pointing at the screen, before realizing how that sounded.

"Stop me when I say things like that," she said.

Then again, the moment helped introduce the concept of "unconscious bias."

"We have so many feelings that we operate from," she said. "We often don't know they are there, but those have an impact on how we treat people. It is really important in this work not just to provide food, but also to look for bias that keep people at bay and prevent them from coming through the doors. How do we take away some of the stigma? How do we make things more accessible?"

Rachele offer workshops on "How Bias Impacts Our Performance" and "Liberal Bigotry: A Serious Ethical Concern" — the latter that called for people to spend less time judging those who hold conservative opinions and more time trying to find common ground.

"People lull themselves into the notion they can be bigoted about things they think are bigoted," she said. "We have to be prepared to really listen, value and act upon the views of others. We have to stop creating enemies. We have to stop pointing fingers."

As the state's largest hunger relief organization, the Foodbank is on track to distribute a record 13 million pounds of staple goods this year from regional warehouses in Barre, Brattleboro and Rutland. Its $7.5 million annual budget (add in donated food and labor and the figure rises to $20 million) is funded 70 percent by community donations and the rest by corporate and government support.

The Foodbank's newfound focus comes in part because the problem of hunger continues, Sayles said.

"It's easy for me to say, 'I'm doing good stuff, I'm part of the solution,' but what we've always been doing isn't creating enough change," the CEO said. "We need to get a bigger impact. Diversity and inclusion is something we all need to think about."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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