Vermont Foodbank, advocates make push for more funding ahead of Scott’s budget address

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MONTPELIER – Ahead of Governor Phil Scott’s Tuesday budget address, the House Appropriations Committee heard from over a dozen advocacy groups, organizations and businesses about the help they need.

The vaccine rollout and the likelihood of additional federal relief has been a cause for hope, but it hasn’t done much to relieve uncertainty. The Vermont Foodbank has been without federal funding for the Farmers to Families Food Box program since January 1. In the short-term, the foodbank has managed to keep the program afloat.

“It’s the middle of winter, we didn’t think it was appropriate to be cutting people off from this important source of food,” CEO John Sayles told lawmakers. “This really is about not only feeding our neighbors, but supporting Vermont producers.”

Sayles requested the state budget include $1.5 million for the program.

Since the beginning of the year, the Vermont Foodbank has been delivering 500 boxes of food per day, and by the end of February, it’s estimated that 20,000 boxes will be distributed.

Farmers from across the state also testified in support.

“This program was not the reason why we closed, but it certainly kept us going through the summer,” said Abbey Thomas, part-owner of Thomas Dairy.

“It was certainly disappointing to see that program taken out of Vermont,” added Angus Baldwin, owner of Three Crows Farm.

Vermont businesses also described unique challenges brought on by the early days of the pandemic. Caledonia Spirits halted its vodka production in 2020 to focus on making hand sanitizer, which was provided to all state hospitals, first responders, and Vermont state office buildings. It was a move that helped fill a critical need at the time, but the revenue from it made Caledonia Spirits ineligible for the second round of PPP loans.

“That eligibility criteria was not established at the time we made the decision to make sanitizer,” said President Ryan Christiansen. “Now, the demand for hand sanitizer has abruptly slowed down, and we’re left with significant inventory and very few avenues to sell it.”

At the same public hearing, Burlington School District Superintendent Tom Flanagan said the district needs at least an additional $3.5 million to help pay for the renovation of the former Macy’s building into a temporary high school.

He said if that’s not a part of the budget as anticipated, it will be a tough pill for taxpayers to swallow.

“It will cost taxpayers and the education fund hundreds of thousands of dollars more due to the need to borrow and cover the renovation costs,” Flanagan said. “Furthermore, waiting to approve this will put Town Meeting Day voters in the difficult position of voting on a budget when a major cost driver is unknown.”

Governor Scott is slated to give his budget address remotely at 1 pm on Tuesday.

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