According to Hunger Free Vermont, 14 percent of the state’s households are food-insecure—meaning that due to low financial resources, they lack access to enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times.
Vikram Patel, a Schweitzer Fellow and Vermont Law School (VLS) student, has mobilized his peers to do something about it. Partnering with the Red Door Thrift Shop and local community leaders, Patel expanded the scope of the VLS food and culture club he had previously founded—adding a new focus on addressing hunger and health in the South Royalton, Vermont community. Patel’s Schweitzer project has built bridges between law students and the surrounding community—and provided food-insecure individuals and families with over 2,000 meals via community dinners, a community garden, and a food pantry.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
While we often hear about a myriad of serious health challenges in other countries, there are many unmet health needs here at home in the United States. 14.6% of our population cannot consistently afford adequate food—and Vermont is ranked 9th hungriest in the nation despite three federally supported nutritional programs.
While the problem is enormous, I am continually motivated by the belief that the actions of a few individuals within a community can make an important difference. For my Schweitzer project, I expanded on a food and culture club that I founded at VLS—working to develop relationships with local community leaders and other law students in order to help provide free weekly dinners to between 60 and 70 low income individuals in our community.
We have been able to do this now for the last nine months, and we conservatively estimate that to date, over 2,000 meals have been served to some of the most in need within our community.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
As part of my project, we are setting up a community food pantry and teaching basic principles of healthy eating. We continue to establish partnerships with local farmers, and we hope the pantry will become an ongoing community social responsibility. Our town has a small community garden that is currently being used to grow crops for the pantry and members of my club are managing all aspects of our garden plot. A local church provides the facility and support for the community dinners, as well as the pantry. It is my hope that all of these community actions will become part of our community’s ongoing social pact.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
I think that the aging of baby boomers will soon make chronic diseases one of the most pressing issues of our time in the United States. Many of these diseases are closely related to personal behaviors like diet and exercise. A significant change in focus must be made towards keeping people healthy, rather than the current focus on managing illness.
Epidemiologists consistently advocate that small improvements in the health of large populations lead to more improvement in the overall health of the population than large improvements in a small number of people with severe disease. We need to change our focus from sickness management to small but meaningful improvements in wellness management.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
I am amazed at how many people have come forward to lend their support and help as the project has evolved. It seems that there are many people who want to help, but don’t know where or how to start. This project has provided focus and, with every success, a tangible way for people to contribute. Because other VLS students have become involved, I also feel that the overall relationship between the law school and the local community, while already strong, may have been enhanced further.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?
Being an Albert Schweitzer Fellow has helped me to further develop what has been a life-long habit of active community participation. It has shown me that an interdisciplinary approach to problems can create solutions.
For example, the most recent floods in Vermont led to an outpouring of volunteer help that included other Schweitzer Fellows from Vermont and New Hampshire. This demonstrated a social commitment and social conscience that continues to evolve. To me, this is the crux of what it means to be a Schweitzer Fellow.
Vikram Patel is a New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellow. Click here to read more about the New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Patel it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects—and developing into lifelong leaders in the process. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Patel, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.