Stigma, Shame, and the Mental Health Impact of Hunger

While some of us enjoy the abundance of Thanksgiving leftovers – or throw out too much food — others don’t know where their next meal is coming from. These disparate realities are a stark reminder of systemic inequities that have been simultaneously exposed and exacerbated by Covid.

Food insecurity – the inability to put food on the table regularly – is a growing problem across the United States. Vermont is no different. One in four Vermont families are food-insecure, according to a UVM study. Pre-Covid, the number was one in 10.  Children, women, and people of color fare worse. As food prices go up as a result of global supply-chain issues, the hunger problem swells.

No Shortage of Food

Ivy Enoch, a food security specialist at Hunger Free Vermont, called the numbers “staggering” in a recent workshop by COVID Support VT. “The roots of hunger in Vermont don’t stem from a shortage of food but from systemic inequities.” That, she said, is cause for hope, because it means hunger is solvable.

COVID Support VT’s partnership with Hunger Free Vermont takes aim at this pressing issue by helping link people to food-assistance programs across the state. A top priority is to increase the reach of the federally funded program known in Vermont as 3SquaresVT. Enoch says the program is underutilized in the state in comparison to the estimates of food-insecure families. That’s linked to shame, stigma, and misconceptions that keep many people from getting the help they need. 

“We know this [shame and stigma] influences people’s decisions. We have to collectively chip away at it,” Enoch said.

The collaboration is also producing a comprehensive inventory of food-distribution sites across Vermont, county by county. The first of these are now available at

Food Security and Mental Health

The link between food insecurity and stress and mental health challenges is complex. Not being able to feed your family causes stress and exacerbates mental health challenges. Chronic stress is linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety. At the same time, inadequate nutrition makes you more vulnerable to stress. A balanced, nutrient-rich diet supports mood and cognition, and can make you more resilient to stress. 

A UVM research team led by doctoral candidate Merelise Ametti is investigating these connections in a new study. She and her colleagues are investigating how food insecurity affects parents’ or caregiver’s mental well-being and their children’s development. The study is currently recruiting adults who have children between 6 and 12. For more information, including eligibility requirements, email

The study will add to a growing base of evidence on how food security impacts health and a much slimmer volume on how the pandemic impacts food security. A survey of 2,714 low-income respondents nationwide in the summer of 2020 provided what the authors called “the first evidence of the severity of the association between food insecurity and mental health during the pandemic.” They found food insecurity associated with a whopping 257% higher risk of anxiety and a 253% higher risk of depression. 

For all of these reasons, food security supports mental health. The two are inextricable. Ensuring Vermont families have enough to eat is an essential piece of meeting Vermonters’ mental health needs. 

“One of the fundamental tenets of crisis support is to meet the immediate needs of the community facing crisis,” says Alex Karambelas, project director for COVID Support VT. “It’s hard to talk to someone about meditating for stress relief when they don’t how they’re going to feed their kids.”

Learn More and Find Food Resources

Learn about 3SquaresVT and how to apply.

See Food Resources at for county-by-county lists of food-distribution sites and sources.

Read How to Talk About Food Assistance, in the COVID Support VT blog. 

Read our Guest Blog by Ivy Enoch, Food Security Specialist at Hunger Free Vermont: “Getting 3SquaresVT, Vermont’s Most Effective and Dignified Hunger Relief Program.”

Learn more about how access to healthy food affects health in Healthy People 2020, Food Insecurity section, from the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

Find out more about how you can help spread the word about 3SquaresVT with the Outreach Toolkit at, a partnership between Hunger Free Vermont and the Vermont Food Bank.

Watch and share this video from

Subscribe to COVIDSupportVT Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to receive notifications of new blog posts by email.

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (option #2) or 866-652-4636 (option #2) for free, confidential, one-on-one counseling. Our Support Counselors are available Monday – Friday. 

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at Follow COVID Support VT on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And to stay up-to-date, sign up for our newsletter and blog.

Learn about upcoming Wellness Workshops from COVID Support VT, and Town Halls we’re hosting in partnership with community organizations.

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the website, plus Multilingual Resources & downloadable materials in 10 languages common to Vermont’s New American immigrant and refugee communities. 

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

Share This