Nourishment beyond calories
Stephanie Bonin, organizer of Everyone Eats!, talks with Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint during a picnic to honor volunteers who made the meals program a big success.

Nourishment beyond calories

Everyone Eats! enters its third phase with additional federal funding to take the program to a close in September

BRATTLEBORO — A three-pronged program aimed at feeding people, keeping restaurants in business, and financially supporting farmers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic entered a third phase this week as its funding was extended through September.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will fund the Everyone Eats! program, said Stephanie Bonin, director of the Brattleboro Hub.

Beginning on July 13, the food distribution hubs across Vermont - such the one on Flat Street - will ramp down from public distribution sites as it looks toward a graceful end in the fall. Instead, the ready-to-eat meals made by local restaurants can be picked up at local organizations, said Bonin, who also serves as the executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.

The announcement came during the program's July 7 appreciation party.

Bonin delivered the good news to the volunteers, restaurant owners, and farmers who gathered on the lawn of the Centre Congregational Church as cars and trucks rumbled past on Main Street.

“During Covid, we were all really drowning with uncertainty and with fear,” Bonin said.

When the drowning feelings were at their worst, everyone involved with the program came together, she said.

“I don't think any of us have fancy titles before our names or after our names - I actually think we're all quite ordinary,” Bonin told the team. “But out of Everyone Eats!, we now are quite extraordinary. And that's just me, looking at you, thinking you're extraordinary.”

The FEMA funding will help the program connect with people still feeling the economic pinch of the pandemic.

“And thank you so much to FEMA for continuing to feed people as they rise out of Covid,” said Bonin, who noted that the goal over the next few months as Everyone Eats! ramps down is to move people who have continued need to long-term supports such as 3SquaresVT or food shelves.

A creative response

Everyone Eats! launched last summer in response to the number of people whose lives had been upturned by the pandemic. The idea was to keep people fed while also feeding the coffers of local restaurants and farmers.

Bonin told the audience that, for her, the purpose of Everyone Eats! was to provide nourishment beyond calories.

“To me, it's about your heart being fed. It's about your wallet being fed. It's about your social meter being fed,” she said.

“It's about your feeling of connectedness, and Covid certainly threatened all of those areas,” Bonin continued. “But here in our community, we didn't want that, and Everyone Eats! made sure that we didn't let that happen.”

Like many programs launched during the pandemic, it represented the innovative solutions that communities can implement when collective effort meets adequate funding.

Yet, as the public health crisis and additional funding dissipates, the question remains: what will happen to these innovative programs? Especially since many of the struggles they addressed, such as hunger, existed before the pandemic and continue to persist?

According to Hunger Free Vermont, one in 10 Vermonters experienced food insecurity prior to the pandemic.

'What happens when people say yes'

Everyone Eats! was inspired by similar programs -Brattleboro's Nourishing Artists, which crowdsourced funding for 300 meals for the arts community; ShiftMeals, a collective community garden initiative developed in conjunction with the Skinny Pancake restaurant in northwestern Vermont; and Chester Helping Hands, a distribution of boxes of fruits and vegetables started by Free Range Restaurant.

But with Everyone Eats!, the innovative wide scope provided sweeping and direct economic stimulus for restaurants and farmers, and what started as a Brattleboro-based initiative was expanded statewide.

Early in the pandemic, the program received funding through the federal CARES Act. The Brattleboro Everyone Eats! Hub served eight towns: Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Marlboro, Newfane, Putney, Townshend, and Vernon.

With the help of 16 organizations, the hub has distributed 187,742 meals since last August. At its peak, the program handed out 5,000 meals a week. In 2021, the program reached approximately 1,233 households a week.

The 27 restaurants that participated in making the meals received $1,877,420 and used ingredients from 56 Vermont farmers and food producers which, in turn, received $93,718 for their ingredients.

Because this year the need for food is less, the program anticipates distributing approximately 2,000 meals a week under the FEMA funding, Bonin said.

Paul Renouf, treasurer of the Putney Foodshelf, said the program is an example of what happens when people say, yes.

“One of the things that I've found remarkable about this is how powerful it is when people decide to say yes - that they step up,” he said. “And we've seen what that does, and I'm fascinated to see what happens when this is over. Like, what is that lesson for the way we are in the world?”

Volunteers made the difference

Approximately 200 volunteers made the Everyone Eats! Program possible, and these were some of the people whom Bonin and Program Coordinator Frances Huntley hoped to honor last week.

“This has definitely been really intense, and I so value so much the energy and care put into this program,” she said.

Compared to other places where she has lived, Huntley said people in the area are connected and committed to their community.

Everyone Eats! purposefully set few restrictions for participation. Basically, if the pandemic had affected someone, they could simply pick up a meal. No one was asked to describe or quantify those effects.

Huntley said she hoped that this low barrier to access would help reduce the stigma people sometimes feel about accepting services.

Volunteer Isabella May said that she messed up multiple orders during her early weeks distributing food.

But, the 13-year-old continued, she also made new friends across the whole age spectrum. She also witnessed patience.

“I learned that having enough food is something that a lot of people struggle with and how desperation and hunger can make people anxious and angry,” May said. “I really don't blame them. We should live in a world where food isn't a privilege, but a right.”

Leda Scheintaub of Dosa Kitchen commented on participating in the program as a restaurant. She shared how Everyone Eats! allowed her and her husband and business partner, Chef Nash Patel, to continue working.

She also felt cared for because she was able to prepare food alone in the kitchen and therefore reduce her risk of exposure to the Coronavirus - a work environment that would not have existed if she had had to operate a restaurant throughout the pandemic.

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Brattleboro, provided the appreciation celebration's closing remarks.

Balint said she volunteered one cold, cold winter's night to understand the program and to see it in action. She said the experience reminded her why she lives in Brattleboro and why she serves her community.

“What I noticed is that it wasn't, of course, just about the food,” Balint said. “It was about work being loved, made visible.”

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