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Locals eat on a SNAP budget to raise awareness

In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, locals ate on the same budget allotted for food stamps as part of Hunger Free Vermont’s tenth annual 3SquaresVT Challenge.

Challenge participants were asked to eat on the average budget provided via 3SquaresVT for a full week, one day, or one meal. For one person, that amounts to approximately $36 for the week, $5.14 for the day, and $1.71 for a meal.

3SquaresVT is the Vermont food assistance program equivalent to national program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps.

According to a press release from Hunger Free Vt. regarding the challenge, “The purpose of the Challenge is not to emulate the reality of food insecurity for Vermonters—many of whom may rely on a variety of programs and resources to meet their families’ needs—but to instead draw attention to the experience of living on a strict food budget and how that may or may not change your daily life both physically and psychologically as a participant.”

3SquaresVT provides over 70,000 Vermonters with monthly funds to use at grocery stores and farmers markets across the state.

To be eligible, residents must have a gross household income equal to or less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. For a household of one person, if you make $1,926 per month or less you could be eligible for benefits.

According to the press release, 3SquaresVT is “proven to reduce hunger, lift people out of poverty, and leads to positive short and long-term health, education, and employment outcomes. By committing to eating on a limited food budget for one week, the Challenge is an opportunity to learn more about 3SquaresVT and gain a better understanding of how important the program is to Vermonters all across our state.”

The week before Thanksgiving also marked National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week.

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Students lead social justice alliance

Members of Colchester High School’s Social Justice Alliance (SJA) cozy up in a circle of plastic chairs, their backpacks, water bottles and crocs splayed around the room. Student members of the new club giggle and chat quietly, checking in about classes, mental health and mutual friends. For many in the group, SJA is a safe space to be themselves and as the club gets more underway, they hope to expand this safe space to make all students feel equal and empowered.

“I personally have struggled a lot with frustration at the world around me and being like, ‘I want to do something about it but I just don’t feel like I have a voice to do that.’ This helps me get that voice,” said junior Kaitlyn Hayes.

CHS teachers Leslie Noble and Jessica Murphy began the club at the beginning of the 2019 school year but were determined to make it student-led. They reached out to students via email and left the rest in their hands.

Much of the club is dedicated to discussing issues students see in their environment, listening to members’ personal experiences and working on action plans. Specific areas students focus on include public outreach, education and research, social media and school involvement.

Hayes noted how difficult it can be as a young person to find in-roads to the social justice movement. Before joining SJA, she recalled wanting to go to protests and be more active, but not having the means or information. She also didn’t want to do it alone.

“This is one of those ways where we can get that opportunity,” said Hayes. “Us, as students, to put ourselves out there and be a part of that group that wants to change something—it feels really good.”

Student member Ellie Sowles agreed, noting how little she knew about social justice but her strong desire to learn. Since joining, Sowles considers SJA a platform for student voices.

“Now that we have voices, we can share that with others,” she said. “It’s about encouraging people to use their voices, to give them a microphone for their voice and to educate people. Show people what it’s all about.”

This push towards self-advocacy is also important to the students. Creating safe spaces for kids to feel empowered is part of that fight.

“Hopefully we can make the whole school as much of a safe space as we can, to truly be yourself,” said SJA member Abby Blin. “I have things that make me different from other people, some I haven’t shared with everyone. But [this is] a safe space where everyone accepts who I am. That’s really empowering. When I can’t be myself in other places, it’s so freeing to be myself in a safe space.”

One of the projects students have already tackled this year landed on Oct. 11—National Coming Out Day. SJA made ribbons for allies of the LGBTQ+ community to wear during school in a show of support. The day also coincided with a school spirit day, promoting celebration to another level.

“It was so great. Almost every single teacher was wearing purple,” recalled SJA member Jennifer Martel. On the rainbow Pride flag, the color purple represents spirit.

Blin also remarked the ribbons seemed to transcend high school cliques.

“There’s a lot of groups in high school, that’s just the way it is,” Blin said. “I know one of my goals is to have other people talk to each other that they wouldn’t normally.”

SJA members have also attended school-sponsored talks from speakers regarding social justice.

Many members attended a talk given by John Lewis, a congressional representative of Georgia and one of the “Big Six” leaders in the Civil Rights Movement who helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963. Students also heard a talk from Alex Gino, a gender-queer children’s book author whose first novel won the 2016 Stonewall Book Award.

“Hatred stems from ignorance,” Martel said. “So just explaining things to people makes it so much easier for them to accept it.”

“This group is still very new, but the fact that we’ve been able to have stuff in action and people follow along with it, support it and feel empowered by it,” said Blin. “I’m looking forward to doing a lot more.”

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Planning commission recommends sewer

Sewer has bubbled to the surface yet again. After nearly six months of researching solutions to wastewater pollution in Malletts Bay, and an extensive public outreach campaign, the Colchester Planning Commission concluded that extending sewer service through the Inner Bay neighborhood is still the town’s best option.

The Planning Commission presented their findings and a draft of their report at a meeting on Nov. 19. The 13-page report gives context for the Planning Commission’s charge, an outline of their process, a review of each of the four identified options, and the Commission’s conclusion.

The three other options nixed include land conservation, community septic, and “do nothing.”

The town has proposed a sewer line to the public twice before—in March 2019, and in the late ‘90s. Both were voted down. One resident addressed this at the presentation, asking, “What is the plan for preventing [the sewer] from being voted down again?”

This question, of whether the town is doomed to run in a circle around sewer, loomed over this summer’s outreach campaign and may continue to haunt the wastewater proposal into a potential vote next year.

Chair of the Planning Commission Richard Paquette addressed the question by noting that the purpose of this summer’s campaign was to give those who voted down the sewer in March an opportunity to provide a better option.

“That’s really what we were looking for, something besides the sewer; could we bring something to you that was better than the sewer,” he said. “But after all of this, we decided that sewer still came to the top. It’s our best bet.”

Director of Planning and Zoning Sarah Hadd also mentioned in the report “many misperceptions [sic] held about septic systems, enforcement abilities of the Town, and wastewater permitting rules.”

The report further states that “while the town has undertaken considerable and comprehensive water quality initiatives, not all community members are aware of these efforts.”

Following the failed vote in March, the selectboard charged the planning commission with reviewing options to address the “lack of wastewater disposal capacity for property on inner Malletts Bay,” and to report their findings to the board this fall.

Starting in May of 2019, the planning commission conducted extensive public outreach, including public forums, surveys, online polls, and workshops.

According to the report, the commission understood the selectboard’s charge to include the same problem area as identified in the previous sewer proposal (289 properties on East and West Lakeshore Drives, and Goodsell Point), and to “solicit as much community involvement as possible.”

The planning commission used a matrix to evaluate all of the options against: 1) Does the solution maintain and/or improve water quality for both current and future land use and site conditions? 2) Is the solution efficient, cost effective, and reliable? 3) What is the impact to the character of the neighborhood? 4) What is the impact to property values and taxes?

The land conservation option proposed that the town buy up and conserve properties along the Inner Bay. According to the commission’s findings, this option proved the most expensive however, adding up to over $72 million if the town was to buy all 289 identified properties. While the option provided potential improvements to the character of the neighborhood, it also had the potential to negatively impact businesses and residents who have to be relocated. In addition, no local conservation fund currently exists in Colchester.

The community septic option seemed to be the closest rival to the sewer option. However, this option would have required land space to support a community septic. Due to the close proximity of houses in the Inner Bay and tight space restrictions, the Planning Commission turned to town-owned Bayside Hazelett property as a possible site option. According to the report, members of the Commission raised concerns about the “chance of malfunction and smells associated with the operation of the system, specifically sludge removal.”

This option also turned out to be more expensive than the proposed sewer, clocking in at $17,550,000 for the total estimated construction cost. The report concludes that “the solution is efficient in that it treats wastewater close to where it originates however the solution is also expensive and requires considerable oversight to operate reliably.”

The “do nothing,” or “no action,” solution was evaluated as a comparison for the other options. The option was proposed by residents during public outreach this summer as a call for more research into the issue. As the report states, despite “the four years and $2 million IWRMP [Integrated Water Resources Management Plan], there were calls to conduct additional study on the scope of the problem and delay action.”

The report also noted that Colchester has the highest level of wastewater enforcement of any onsite municipality in Vermont.

The problem statement included in the report goes into detail about the history of wastewater in the inner bay, as well as the extensive research the town of Colchester has conducted in light of the pollution.

According to the report, the town has considered wastewater pollution within the inner bay as far back as in the original 1967 town plan.

Two studies in the last ten years have further confirmed the presence of human wastewater pollution in the Bay.

The report states that in 2015, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Watershed Management Division determined that the presence of E.coli, while relatively common in streams and rivers, is much more rare in lakes — and that “the record of repeating and regular E.coli bacteria exceedances during dry weather is uncommon in Vermont lake waters and suggests a higher than expected source signal in Malletts Bay.”

In 2013, the planning commission conducted the IWRMP, which “constituted the highest level of wastewater investigation physically and legally possible and concluded that the best solution for the high risk area of the Inner Bay was sewer.”

“We don’t have time to choose the no action option, even if you’d like more data,” said Hadd. “Conducting more studies now is a waste of public funds.” Waiting, she said, would make cleaning up much more expensive in the future.

The planning commission plans to present the final draft of its findings to the selectboard in January of 2020. Public comment on the draft is welcomed until Dec. 13. The Commission also plans to evaluate public comments on their findings at their Dec. 17 meeting.