Everyone Eats becomes model for state program

COVID-19 stimulus funding will subsidize multiple regional food distribution hubs through December

BRATTLEBORO — After a successful launch in Brattleboro, a program designed to provide nutritious meals to Vermonters affected by the COVID-19 crisis while helping support local restaurants is going statewide.

The program, the first of its kind in the country, is now being made available in a dozen or more regional hubs, including northern Windham County, thanks to a recent $5 million grant from the Vermont Agency of Commerce & Community Development (ACCD).

According to a news release, Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) will be the statewide administrator and fiscal agent for this program.

Now called Vermont Everyone Eats (VEE), the program is funded through a Coronavirus Relief Fund grant to Vermont through the federal CARES Act passed by Congress in March. After collaborating with ACCD and a statewide task force to work out the details involved in the program's implementation, the program is now rolling out across Vermont.

Ten organizations will serve their regions around the state and will receive grants from SEVCA to operate and manage the programs in their areas through mid-December. The hubs will engage their participating restaurants in preparing the meals and the farmers and food producers in supplying the ingredients for them.

The program provides relief to restaurants struggling to stay in business and keeping their workers employed. These employees will apply their skills and expertise to produce high quality, healthy meals for food-insecure Vermonters.

Rapid expansion

In partnership with local food shelves, shelters, other service providers, businesses, community coalitions, and private citizens, VEE is already producing and distributing 11,000 meals per week, a number projected to rise to more than 20,000 meals per week, significantly more than required by the grant.

On the average, at least 10 percent of the meals' ingredients will coming from farms and other food producers from Vermont. More than 90 local restaurants and more than 60 local farms have signed on, with more being added weekly.

Besides the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance's program, which serves southern Windham County, program hubs have begun in southern Vermont, including Wilmington Works (western Windham County/Deerfield Valley) and the Springfield Family Center and Chester Helping Hands (northern Windham County and southern Windsor County).

The Wilmington Works program is slated to begin Sept. 28 and hopes to distribute 750 meals per week.

A total of 1,500 meals per week are now being served at the Springfield Family Center in Londonderry via Neighborhood Connections; in Ludlow via Black River Good Neighbors; in Windham via Windham Cares; in Rockingham and Bellows Falls via Rockingham Helping Helpers and Our Place, Greater Falls Connections, and Bellows Falls Senior Center; in Grafton via Grafton Community Church; and in Chester via Chester Helping Hands.

Rockingham-area restaurants - currently including Jamaican Jewelz, MKT: Grafton, Wunderbar, Allen Bro's, Leslie's, and Smokin' Bowls - will be making meals for people in Rockingham, Westminster, Athens, and Grafton. Meals can be picked up at Parks Place in Bellows Falls on Wednesdays from 5 to 6 p.m., and Fridays, from 10 to 11 a.m.

Everyone Eats Brattleboro, which started in early August, distributes up to 3,300 meals per week Monday through Thursday, from 4 to 6 p.m. Individuals may pick up their meals at the C.F. Church building downtown at 80 Flat St., while organizations will pick up their meals at MamaSezz at 127 Marlboro Rd. in West Brattleboro.

Eleven Brattleboro restaurants are providing meals for Everyone Eats - A Vermont Table, Dosa Kitchen, Duo, Echo, Hazel, Indian Masala, MamaSezz, The Porch Too, Shin La, The Works, and Yalla.

The meals are available on a first-come, first served basis, with limited amounts of vegetarian meals available at each pickup location. Recipients may request one meal for each person in a household. Recognizing that transportation can be an issue, someone from one household may also pick up meals for up to three other households.

Teamwork and planning

SEVCA is one of five Community Action Agencies (CAAs) in Vermont and 1,000 in the nation. These agencies address issues of food insecurity, economic crisis, and other consequences of poverty.

SEVCA management said it quickly saw the multiple benefits of expanding these pilot initiatives statewide. When the Task Force and then the Legislature asked SEVCA if it would serve as statewide program coordinator and fiscal agent, Executive Director Steve Geller said the agency didn't hesitate.

“This was clearly an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate the power of effective public-private-nonprofit partnerships to help individuals and families, businesses and their employees, and local communities and their economies get relief and move toward recovery from this devastating crisis we've all become mired in,” he said.

In early August, Jean Hamilton, coordinator for the Skinny Pancake restaurants' ShiftMeals initiative (one of the earliest pilot programs), signed on to do the same work on a statewide scale as part of SEVCA's COVID-19 response ream.

Under Hamilton's leadership, in March, the Montpelier-based restaurant group decided to use its PPP loan to partner with Vermont Community Foundation, Intervale Center, and High Meadows Fund to keep restaurant staff employed by producing meals for those in need.

That work, in coordination with Vermont Foodbank and other organizations and businesses, provided more than 50,000 nutritious meals during the first three months.

VEE's rollout and ramp-up is forging ahead at a pace, scale, and coverage level of the state that is exceeding all expectations, according to program leaders.

At the current rate of meal production and hub/restaurant expansion, Hamilton and her colleagues say they expect to spend the funds prior to the Dec. 20 deadline and could do even more if additional funds became available.

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