BRATTLEBORO — Volunteers handed out 1,300 Thanksgiving meals in the parking lot of 80 Flat St. on Nov. 25.
For Everyone Eats, the regional hub in a statewide system to provide meals to the community during the global pandemic, the number is one to be proud of on a holiday that traditionally marks gratitude.
However, that demand also serves as a note of caution in a year upended by the economic effects of COVID-19 emergency measures.
On that Wednesday night, many people were still waiting in line for Thanksgiving meals when, 90 minutes into the distribution, volunteers ran out of food. And the program itself will stop at the end of the year unless that federal funding is renewed.
Volunteers started setting up at noon. Delivery drivers from local organizations such as Dummerston Cares and Groundworks arrived around 2 p.m. to take food to the homes of people who were unable to come to the site.
While distribution of the special Thanksgiving meals ended at 5:30 because they ran out of food, people could receive the regularly scheduled Everyone Eats! meal until 6 p.m.
Stephanie Bonin, organizer and Everyone Eats! hub director, called the night “bittersweet.”
The hub distributed Thanksgiving meals in place of the volunteer-run Brattleboro Community Thanksgiving dinner. Traditionally held as a family-style community meal, the meal has fed people from the region for more than 40 years.
This year, however, efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus led Gov. Phil Scott to suspend multi-household gatherings via an update to his pandemic-related executive order on Nov. 13.
According to the Vermont Department of Health, the rate of new coronavirus infections in November drastically increased compared to earlier in the year.
As of Dec. 8, 5,180 Vermonters have contracted the virus, and 85 have died from its complications. In Windham County, 304 people have tested positive. Five deaths have been recorded here.
Volunteers make it work
Bonin said approximately 50 volunteers made the big Thanksgiving food distribution possible, touching every aspect of the night from planning to delivering food to staffing the drive-thru distribution.
“There were a lot of little jobs all along the way,” she said.
The Thanksgiving meals, prepared by 16 local restaurants, served as a little bright spot on top of what might have been a lonely day for many, spent without loved ones, she said.
“We cannot discount mental health, because we're going to have to do it all over again,” Bonin said of the rapidly rising number of infections in Vermont.
Slowing the spread of COVID-19 has meant social isolation for many community members. It has also meant economic distress. In most cases, the best way to manage the public-health crisis has effectively closed the economy.
In October, Vermont 211, a free, around-the-clock statewide resource for connecting people in crisis to resources that can help, responded to 41 percent more calls than it did during the same month last year.
Calls related to finding food have increased significantly, the agency reports. Referrals to food resources from June to October increased by 94 percent over the same time period in 2019.
Even with the rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccines expected by the end of December, it is expected that the pandemic will stretch well into 2021.
And the emergency federal funding for Everyone Eats! is due to end on Dec. 31.
The final Everyone Eats! meal distribution is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 30. Bonin said this program will go away unless Congress passes a second round of emergency COVID-19 funding.
“Dec. 31 is the [funding] cliff that Congress has handed us without any sign of giving us more,” Bonin said.
The Vermont Everyone Eats! Task Force is exploring other ways to fund the program, but its future remains uncertain, she said.
A difficult winter
As the money for Everyone Eats! and the Farmers to Families food-box program dries up, social-service organizations are preparing for winter.
At their Dec. 2 meeting, members of the Windham County Hunger Council discussed winter food programs.
The sturdiest such resource is 3SquaresVT, the state's name for the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), still commonly known as food stamps.
Sue Graff, a field director for the state Agency of Human Services working out of the Brattleboro District office, told fellow Hunger Council members that promoting 3SquaresVT is important right now because other programs are ending.
People needing assistance signing up for 3Squares can call Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) at 802-722-4575 or 800-464-9951 or visit sevca.org/family-services/food-stamp-outreach-3squaresvt. They can also visit hungerfreevt.org/how-do-i-apply, call 211, or text VFBSNAP to 855-11.
According to information from Hunger Free Vermont, some Vermonters qualify for food stamps, yet they are not participating in the program.
With the end of funding for the Everyone Eats! program on the horizon, Bonin said it's important to transition people who need support into long-term food programs.
Bonin said she hopes community members will reach out to anyone they know who is struggling financially and encourage them to sign up for 3SquaresVT.
That's how neighbors can help one another right now, she added.
“So, what we all did [on Nov. 25] made a difference in 1,300 people's lives,” Bonin said, “and that's who we are as a community.”