New program offers ‘so much more than just free food’
Volunteer Phelan Muller, left, looks on as Stephanie Bonin brings in a tray full of meals to be distributed as part of the Everyone Eats! food program.

New program offers ‘so much more than just free food’

Everyone Eats! uses federal CARES money to feed the community in five towns — and, at the same time, to support local restaurants and farmers

BRATTLEBORO — On the first day of Everyone Eats!, the community food program handed out 500 to-go meals - hardly a surprise.

That volunteers did so in all of 39 minutes?

That was the surprise, said local organizer Stephanie Bonin, who also serves as executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance. “We weren't expecting that at all.”

On day two, the participating restaurants also made 500 meals, but Bonin said Tropical Storm Isaias cancelled the in-person distribution.

“I like to be tested, but I'd rather be tested on day 10,” Bonin joked.

Instead, some of these meals were distributed to people living in hotels and the rest were kept in the restaurants' refrigerators to be distributed later in the week.

Realizing the need was greater than anticipated, on day three of the program, the number of meals increased to 650.

On Aug. 6, volunteers passed to-go meals to drivers waiting in the Church Building parking lot. By 5 p.m., approximately 70 households had picked up food from Dosa Kitchen, Yalla, Duo, The Works, and MamaSezz, that day's restaurateurs and food service providers.

Volunteer Coordinator Frances Huntley passed two bags of meals to women waiting at a table.

“This is for everyone in this area,” she said. “Anyone who finds value can use this program and pick up a meal, and you don't need to justify your need.”

Huntley started working with Everyone Eats! in mid-June after Bonin reached out to her after seeing the recent college graduate's resume online.

For Huntley, who lives in New Hampshire, the most important aspect of the program is making connections with the volunteers and people picking up meals.

“It's really great and energizing to be involved with the community and be present with the community,” she said.

Volunteer Phelan Muller asks a driver to open their windows for ventilation. He takes a card with a number from the driver's windshield and returns with a bag of meals.

A college student, Muller heard about Everyone Eats! from his mother, Margaret Atkinson, who also serves on the Hunger Council of the Windham Region.

“I'm more than happy to do it,” he said of volunteering.

Volunteer Kiera King organizes paperwork and prepares bags of food for Muller. She said that she started volunteering to distribute food for the school system and now Everyone Eats! after first being furloughed, then laid off, during the pandemic.

The food-relief program was inspired by similar programs that also formed in response to the economic stress caused by the pandemic, Bonin said.

She named her own work on Nourishing Artists, as well as ShiftMeals, a program developed in conjunction with the Skinny Pancake restaurant in Burlington, and Chester Helping Hands, started by Free Range Restaurant.

Program operates on three pillars

What started as a pilot program in Brattleboro has become the first in the state, said Bonin, who is serving as the program director for the Brattleboro hub. The Legislature approved using $5 million of the state's allotment of the federal CARES Act funding for Everyone Eats!–type programs across the state.

“We evolved into being the first project of Everyone Eats!,” Bonin said.

She explained that the program operates on three pillars: to help feed people who are food-insecure, to help save local restaurants that have borne the economic brunt of the COVID-19 shutdown and people staying at home, and to help support local food producers and growers.

Bonin said the intent behind these three pillars was to connect as many people and meet as many of their needs as possible.

“How can we serve more that are in need right now?” she said.

Restaurants know how to feed people, she said, and when they are paid for their meals, money is going back into the local economy.

In contrast, prepackaged emergency rations that have been distributed by the state, while useful, don't positively affect the local economy, she said.

Everyone Eats! broadens the number of people benefiting from the influx of funds, Bonin added, since the program requires that 10 percent of the ingredients used by the restaurants come from local producers.

As an example, Bonin said Indian Masala House on Putney Road had not purchased food locally before. The owners asked for advice from other restaurants, whose owners put them in contact with Food Connects, a program that matches institutional buyers with local farms and farmers.

“Now Food Connects has a new customer. That's exactly what we're looking for,” Bonin said, adding that buying local puts money back into the local economy.

The state recently sent out a request for proposals asking organizations to take up Everyone Eats!–type programs in other Vermont communities.

Funding for the program will come from the federal CARES Act to the state, she said. The state then sends funds to the local fiscal sponsor, an IRS-designated nonprofit that accepts the funding on the program's behalf.

The fiscal sponsor then sends money to the local community hubs. In Brattleboro's case Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) disburses the funding to Bonin, who then writes the checks to the local restaurants.

Conversations with other organizers and members of the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development started in late May after Bonin sought matching funds to expand Nourishing Artists program that ran this spring and early summer.

The ACCD brought together Bonin and organizers of ShiftMeals.

As far as Bonin knows, Vermont is the first state to use the federal CARES funds to create such a program.

The concept of restaurants feeding people during the pandemic, however, is not new. At the national and international levels, restaurants have started providing food to the charitable food system, she said.

The challenging part of getting Everyone Eats! off the ground is that it's new, Bonin said.

“The state knows how to feed people,” she said. “The state knows how to do the food programs it's doing, but this is an unknown - that's the hurdle, there isn't a precedent,” she said.

Still, the state has been a “huge ally” throughout the program-building process, she added.

The easiest part was signing up the restaurants and organizations to distribute food locally, she said.

Individuals do not need to sign up in advance, and no personal information is required. A short questionnaire is optional, said Bonin, noting that the team is trying to gather information from participants so they can identify how best meet the community need.

Right now, the four-week program is maxed at 650 meals per day. Bonin said the Brattleboro hub plans to reapply for additional funding in the hope of increasing the number of meals distributed.

If the funding comes through, it would expand the program through December, at which point the federal monies must be spent.

Bonin said that the community is used to looking at the business community as a source of help. The business community, in contrast, is not used to asking for help. She hopes Everyone Eats! will change this presumption.

For example, before the storm, she called a restaurant to find out if they had started making meals, or if she should cancel the order. The owner said that they were halfway through cooking but was willing to take a loss.

No one is taking a loss, Bonin said, adding that they would be paid for all the meals produced.

“It's not just about hospitality,” she said. “We're reaching out to the very people who help us.”

The same thing happened with Nourishing Artists, where artists would tell Bonin that while they'd lost their income due to COVID-19, they were sure other people would need the meals more.

“We all need these meals for different reasons, so please come and pick up a meal,” she told the artists.

“This pandemic is pressing us to make sure we ask for help,” she said.

If people feel they need to “pay” for a meal, Bonin said, she is collecting extra produce for the restaurants. If there is an abundance of something in one's garden, she urges people to feel free to bring it by for a little give and take.

Deb Valois said she has picked up food for herself and her adopted grandson. Valois moved to Vermont 31 years ago from Springfield, Mass. She said she has loved living here and raising her family here.

“I just love Vermont, I just love our state, they take care of their people,” she said. “The businesses are being reimbursed, they're getting revenue from this program, and it's feeding the people.”

So far, Valois has tried a gluten-free meal and omnivore meals. “The food was absolutely delicious,” she said.

Valois described her trips to the grocery store and access to groceries as “limited.” Bringing home prepared meals is convenient and appreciated because of her financial limitations.

“It eliminates the 'what's for supper?',” she said. “It's just a stressful time in general, and this is just one less thing.”

“My heart is full knowing that these restaurants are keeping their wheels turning,” said Valois, adding that she learned about the program through HCRS, as well as from posts on Facebook.

“The people were attentive to me as a person,” she said. “I was just treated with kindness. I feel so safe here.”

Valois said that picking up free food can feel a little strange - a good point, because despite community conversations that have tried to reduce stigma around food insecurity, not everyone feels comfortable accepting free food.

“I grew up in a generation where we worked for everything and free stuff is big,” Valois said. “I think I carry that with me. It's also a status thing.”

She shared that despite “working hard my whole life,” a “traumatic incident” 12 years ago changed many things in her life, including her ability to work.

“I raised my kids myself, and I'm very proud,” she said.

“I don't feel like it's bad that food is being given - I think it's most wonderful - it fills my heart,” Valois added. “It's a life change to be given things.”

Valois said she is not alone because the pandemic has affected many families' social status.

“I certainly have been there. I've been homeless, and I've been down, and I know what it's like,” she said.

“I guess it humbles you,” Valois observed. “Tomorrow, your life can change so that you're needing things.”

She said that the stress caused by the pandemic is pulling people from across the economic spectrum “to the center.” In the long run, despite the challenges, she thinks the pandemic will help communities connect and find creative solutions.

“The giving feels so good,” Valois said. “To be around that giving... it's emotional. It's so much more than just free food.”

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