This week we learned about a program that has helped a great number of people throughout the state including many in Windham County. I love programs that achieve multiple “wins” and Everyone Eats is one of those.
When the pandemic struck and a State of Emergency was declared in Vermont, many people and businesses were negatively affected, perhaps none more than our restaurants. As a result, other folks down the line felt the pinch, in this case, the people work at or supply fresh products to those restaurants. The drop in business was staggering and it took a while to pivot and find other ways to keep their businesses going. We have heard testimony from farmers who established an online presence and have done extremely well but there are others who continued to struggle.
Vermont Everyone Eats (VEE) (Vermont Everyone Eats! (vteveryoneeats.org)) is a program that grew out of the need to increase business for the farmers, keep the restaurants afloat, and feed the people who were struggling with food insecurity. Interestingly, some of those who became food insecure were farmers, migrant workers, and restaurant workers who would typically receive a shift meal while at work.
Our own Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) (https://www.sevca.org) served as the Statewide Coordinating Agency in a grant agreement with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD). A Request for Proposal was disseminated to recruit restaurants to participate in the program and form “Hubs”. The first Hub established was in Brattleboro.
Jean Hamilton, who had served as the Statewide Task Force Chair while the program was planned and developed during the summer in 2020, was hired as the Statewide Project Coordinator. Jean is full of positive, enthusiastic energy and described VEE as the “intersection of economic development and poverty.”
Many agencies and organizations worked together to make it happen. Gary Holloway, who is the Downtown Program Manager for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD), named a long list including the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets; the Agency of Human Services; SEVCA; ACCD; the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance; Vermont Emergency Management; the Vermont Public Safety Department; Hunger Free VT; the Vermont Foodbank, the Vermont Hospitality Coalition; the Vermont Fresh Network; the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund Farm to Plate; the Vermont Community Foundation; Vermont Association of Area Agencies on Aging; and Capstone. He also credited the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as being amazing. This is an instance when everyone rolled up their sleeves and made it work.
The first meals were served on August 3rd, and while bad weather hampered the first few days, meals were produced, served, and distributed Monday through Thursday, with the cooperation of many community organizations and several local restaurants. Meals were served to anyone, regardless of age or economic status and it was noted in testimony that the fact that you didn’t have to show identification or prove you were in need contributed to the dignity and success of the program.
Richard Berkfield of Food Connects (https://www.foodconnects.org) spoke of their role in the program. Typically, Food Connects aggregates food from local producers and works to increase access to new markets through the Food Connects’ Food Hub (Vermont) and Monadnock Menus (New Hampshire). Their website tells us that they “have done $1.5 Million in local food sales to local customers.” They streamline aggregation and offer source-identified produce, meat, dairy, and baked goods from dozens of local producers in southern Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. What that means to the local economy is huge and encouraging as we think about developing a more regional food supply chain system.
In this case, Food Connects helped local restaurants that wanted to participate in VEE source local food. One of the requirements for reimbursement for the meals produced was that restaurants source at least 10% of their ingredients from local producers. Food Connects gained seven new restaurant customers, which is a positive outcome going forward. Jean Hamilton told us that in some places throughout the state, restaurants sourced 30% locally, amounting to $500,000 in new sales.
Mike Wegner of the Works Bakery Café (Brattleboro, VT – The Works Café (workscafe.com)) told us that he had never seen a program like this before and credited it with saving jobs and lives. He feels VEE helped build stronger relationships with other restaurants and increase the amount of local products used. He also credited Stephanie Bonin, Executive Director of Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, for all her hard work in getting the word out and making things happen.
To complete the circle, we heard from Kara Fitzbeauchamp, owner of Evening Song Farm (Evening Song Farm (eveningsongcsa.com)) in Cuttingsville. Those of us who travel to Rutland on Route 103 might remember the devastation that occurred to Evening Song Farm during Tropical Storm Irene. The Mill River jumped its banks and turned their fields into a moonscape, so Kara and her partner are no strangers to catastrophe. Perhaps this better prepared Kara for the pandemic, but they made a rapid shift, prioritized their employees, and expanded their Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) business. They have been working with the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center in Rutland (Vermont Farmers Food Center) and credit it with creating a huge new market opportunity for smaller farms. She explained that their CSA, Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, and VEE has been very helpful to families, especially those that had never needed help before.
VEE was on a brief hiatus due to a lack of funds but fortunately resumed operations in the middle of January. Added to the list of restaurants preparing meals for the Brattleboro area are the Four Columns, Whetstone Brewery, and the Putney Food Coop. It should be emphasized that there is no paperwork or registration required to receive meals and they are available to anyone negatively affected by the pandemic. Meals can be picked up at the distribution sites and partner organizations deliver meals to their clients. The program is being expanded to Marlboro and the West River Valley and has been available to those of us who live in northern Windham County. You can check out the VEE website for distribution sites nearest you.
I’ll end with the following taken from the Food Connects website that puts it so very well: “Everyone Eats purchases to-go meals from local restaurants to feed our community. The program supports the local economy while supporting those in need who have been negatively impacted by COVID by food insecurity or those looking for the nourishment of prepared meals because of this crisis we are living through.”