Food assistance program set to end March 31
Olga Peters/Commons file photo
With Thanksgiving plans upended by a pandemic with no end in sight, people lined up on Flat Street for the Everyone Eats Thanksgiving food distribution in Brattleboro in 2020.

Food assistance program set to end March 31

Vermont Everyone Eats program helped diners, restaurateurs, and farmers survive difficult times during the pandemic with more than 3.5 million meals

BRATTLEBORO — Vermont Everyone Eats (VEE) will end March 31 after a hugely successful two-and-a-half-year run.

The federally funded, short-term pandemic recovery initiative was created to help restaurants, farmers, and those who needed a meal navigate the acute economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We don’t get to eat out very often, and the foods you have prepared for us have been absolutely delicious,” one Brattleboro meal recipient told program organizers, likening the program’s offerings to “a catered meal.”

“You should know how your contribution has not only fed us, but also made our hearts grow with gratitude,” the writer continued. “The quality, time, and care that has been put into these meals is nothing short of outstanding. Finding a way to be resourceful and still feeding us as if we were eating in the restaurant means so much.”

The Brattleboro Everyone Eats hub of the statewide program has been sponsored by the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and run by Restaurant Liaison Amanda Witman and Distribution Manager Max Magen, with the help of numerous volunteers and community organizations.

At the peak of the program in December 2020, the local hub was providing 5,000 meals per week made by 29 local restaurants dealing with lockdowns and uncertainty that accompanied the coronavirus and its spread, especially before vaccines and effective treatments became available.

Today, Brattleboro Everyone Eats distributes 2,200 meals a week to eaters in need in the greater Brattleboro area and provides income to 15 local restaurants.

Born of crisis

The program began Aug. 1, 2020. Hubs in the state have distributed approximately 3.5 million meals throughout the state’s 14 counties, generating more than $34 million in revenue for participating restaurants.

An average of 35% of meal ingredients — far exceeding the program’s 10% local ingredient minimum — have been bought from Vermont farmers and food producers, providing more than $3.5 million in revenue.

The program has benefited more than 700 restaurants, farms, food producers, hubs, and distribution partners throughout the state’s 14 counties since its inception and will continue to distribute an average of 25,000 meals per week to food insecure individuals across Vermont until it ends.

Why is the program ending?

“Vermont Everyone Eats was specifically intended as a temporary emergency support program,” Witman says.

The program was made possible after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by the 116th U.S. Congress, was signed into law on March 27, 2020 in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In late June 2020, Vermont legislators allocated CARES Act money and voted to create the VEE program.

“We owe deep appreciation to our legislators for making this program possible with their vote,” Witman says. “It soon became clear that FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] could and would provide federal disaster funding to reimburse the costs of the program, which it continued to fund 100% through June 2022.”

However, beginning in July 2022, FEMA’s funding shifted to a 90/10 model with a requirement that the program cover 10% of the cost. The Vermont Legislature allocated $1.3 million to make up that difference.

VEE ran with collaborative support from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development; the Agency of Human Services; the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets; Vermont Emergency Management; and more than $42 million in federal FEMA funding supplemented by the $1.3 million allocation from the Legislature.

The program provided a three-pronged boost during the pandemic: free restaurant-prepared meals to Vermonters in need of food assistance, a stabilizing source of income for Vermont restaurants hurt by Covid closures, and economic support to Vermont farmers and food producers.

“With careful management and a measured ramp-down, that $1.3 million allocation will stretch until exactly March 31, 2023,” Witman says. “The program will not qualify for funding after the cost share allocation is used up.”

“This emergency program played a key role in providing meals to households while providing stable income for Vermont restaurants, farmers, and food producers during the uncertain times of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Department of Housing and Community Development Commissioner Josh Hanford.

“As this federally funded emergency COVID-19 response tool winds down, the hard work of developing sustainable solutions to end food insecurity in Vermont will continue,” he adds.

Gaps remain in food insecurity fight

VEE has raised awareness of gaps in the existing systems addressing food insecurity in the state as well as the ongoing business challenges faced by Vermont restaurants and farmers in our seasonally driven state economy.

Using this program as a model, partners will continue to work together to identify sustainable long-term solutions to address ongoing food security and economic needs.

“Vermont Everyone Eats did a remarkable job rallying communities of restaurants, eaters, and farmers during the pandemic. It was not designed to end hunger in the state of Vermont,” says Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles, a member of the Vermont Everyone Eats statewide task force. “Hunger, a solvable problem, still exists. While VEE is coming to a close, collaborative action will continue across Vermont to ensure the dignity of enough nourishing food for all.”

Asked what options or plans — if any — exist for the diners, restaurants, and farmers in need who have been helped while the program has been running, Witman answers, “this is the question we are all grappling with right now.”

“A number of federally funded, pandemic-era programs are ending at the same time, and the increased need will be significant,” she says. “Hunger is always an emergency, and restaurants and farmers always face ongoing business challenges in our seasonally-driven state economy here in Vermont.”

Witman says a number of strong programs and organizations already in place statewide “work very hard” to improve food security for Vermonters.

“Locally, we have organizations like Foodworks, Loaves & Fishes, and many others that do their part in providing food for those who need it. Is it enough to meet the need? No,” she says.

“We are also concerned by the challenges that restaurants and farmers continue to face,” Witman adds. “We must continue to work together to develop sustainable solutions to these ongoing challenges.”

“The restaurants and other downtown businesses in downtown Brattleboro are part of what makes our town so vibrant and attractive,” she continues. “It is a huge success of this program that so many of our participating restaurants were able to weather the pandemic and remain in business.”

“The Everyone Eats program helped make that happen,” Witman says.

Helping small businesses survive

Two restaurateurs who have participated in the program for two years are exceedingly grateful for the VEE opportunity, albeit for different reasons. It got one through a rough patch. For the other, it gave him another venue in which to do the right thing.

“It has, honestly, been a lifesaver,” says Jaci Reynolds, who owns a catering business and food truck called Jaci’s BBQ Joint.

Reynolds says last year was her first year with the truck and she had no plan for the fall or winter other than to take on catering gigs.

She heard of the program, contacted organizers, and “thank goodness, they needed more partners,” she says.

Otherwise, she says, she would have had taken on another sort of job, which would have proved difficult to find, given that she planned to leave when barbecue season started again.

“Everyone Eats kept me going,” Reynolds says, recognizing that the program will end just as she’ll be moving on from the food truck to a bricks-and-mortar location at the new Vermont Marketplace (formerly The Outlet Center) on Canal Street, off Exit 1 of Interstate 91, where she’s renting a kitchen and “pivoting the business a little bit.”

For Eddie Cogliano of Fast Eddie’s Restaurant and Bakery on Putney Road in Brattleboro, helping out is a way of life, and Vermont Everyone Eats offered him another opportunity to do so.

“I do the meals because it’s the right thing to do, not for financial gain,” Cogliano says. “I put out meat meals, which are expensive to make. I was a caterer for 30 years in Massachusetts and have huge buying power. I mostly buy meat from Boston, but I do buy local veggies, so I’m able to give a good value.”

Cogliano is also involved with Groundworks, a Brattleboro collaborative working to find solutions to end hunger and homelessness in the region. He personally delivers meals there every Thursday and plans to do more.

“They look forward to seeing me,” he says, adding that his 19 years in the Coast Guard showed him how government programs work — or sometimes don’t work — in many locations.

“There is homelessness everywhere, but it seems in Brattleboro homelessness is highlighted, and it seems to be a big problem, and it’s very sad,” he says. “Sometimes between the political layers things don’t always work out so well, but if everyone does the right thing, it does work.”

“Amanda has been great and when I saw what it [VEE] was, and knew I could make an immediate impact, it meant a lot to me,” Cogliano says.

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