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‘Everyone Eats’ fills a void — with food and good will

MIDDLEBURY — For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has served up a heaping helping of fear. The fear of catching a virus that has thus far infected more than 4,100 Vermonters, killing 69.
But COVID-19 has also left a lot of us with a void — in our hearts because of prolonged separation from loved ones, and in our bellies due to pandemic-driven job losses and furloughs.
Results of a survey released last week by the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute revealed 30% of Vermonters are currently “food insecure.” Three times as many Vermonters can be classified as not having enough food to eat right now as there were in 2018, according to the Gund survey.
Well, more help has arrived for people in the Middlebury area who are experiencing hunger pangs. 
It’s called the “Everyone Eats” program, a partnership between a much-respected restaurant and a tireless grassroots organization bent on assisting neighbors during this critical time of need.
The partnership involves the Swift House Inn/Jessica’s Restaurant and the Charter House Coalition, a nonprofit organization that provides basic food and shelter to people in and around Middlebury. Together, they’ve tapped federal grant money that’s allowing them to make and deliver 290 free, nutritious meals each week to individuals and families who might be homeless, frail and/or elderly, or able-bodied people who can stop by the Congregation Church of Middlebury every Friday evening (with face coverings) to pick up the pre-packed suppers.
“It’s been a great program for all involved,” said Swift House Inn co-owner Matthew Robinson.
“I’d like to think of it as the old expression, ‘Doing well by doing good.’”
Everyone Eats is a federally funded, nonprofit venture that currently touches all 14 Vermont counties with a combined total of 30,000 meals provided at 134 distribution sites each week. 
The program has since September been delivering around 1,000 meals weekly to people in the Vergennes area, Starksboro, Monkton and Bristol, thanks to a partnership between the Boys & Girls Club of Vergennes, Bar Antidote and 3 Squares Café.
Everyone Eats has delivered a measure of food security to thousands of Vermonters, and also an economic boost to dozens of restaurants, farms and other food producers who have seen their revenues go down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michele Gilbert is Addison County’s RiseVT program manager and a volunteer with the Charter House Coalition’s (CHC) community suppers, a 15-year tradition. Those suppers have been offered every Friday evening to anyone who’s hungry in the Middlebury area.
Gilbert enjoyed the meal prep and serving her neighbors, and learned (through RiseVT) the program could be enhanced through Everyone Eats.
“It kind of morphed into my work,” she said.
RiseVT cleared Gilbert to apply for a grant through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund that would allow Middlebury to join Vergennes as an Everyone Eats hub. She was successful. The funding, lasting through December, is compensating Swift House Inn/Jessica’s to make the 290 nutritious meals each week that are being provided to homeless individuals and anyone who is hungry in the Middlebury area.
Dottie Neuberger has been a volunteer with the CHC’s Friday community meals since their inception. Those Friday suppers have typically been hosted by the Congregational Church of Middlebury and have been in addition to free lunches made at the CHC’s warming shelter for homeless individuals.
But COVID forced the coalition to relegate the community meals to pickup or delivery only — instead of the usual congregate setting at the church — when the pandemic hit last March. Volunteers wear gloves and face coverings, and submit to temperature checks to make sure they aren’t putting themselves or others at risk of contracting the virus.
Neuberger gave huge credit to the Jessica’s Restaurant chefs for making the meals, to Gilbert for securing the grant, and to a corps of six volunteer drivers who deliver the weekly meals to those who can’t pick one up at the church.
Middlebury College Football Coach Robert Ritter and Addison Central School District board member Mary Gill are among the delivery people.
“And at this time, more people need food,” Neuberger noted. “Anyone who was on a minimum wage job was in danger of losing it, and most of them did.”
Those receiving the weekly Middlebury meals include 25 area families with a combined total of 100 children, according to Neuberger. The suppers (40 of them) are specifically earmarked for homeless individuals under supervision of the CHC. 
All the recipients are grateful, according to Neuberger.
“A lot of them ask how they can help us,” she said.
Jessica’s Restaurant chefs make the meals lovingly and skillfully, using an abundance of local produce and proteins. Robinson cited Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham and Duclos & Thompson Farm in Weybridge as two primary purveyors of meal ingredients. There’s a requirement that at least 10% of the products used in the meals must be locally sourced. The Swift House Inn has been sourcing at least 60% of its ingredients from local farms, markets and vendors, according to Robinson.
Jessica’s provides the main course — typically, a meat, vegetable and starch — while COC volunteers round out the fare with fruit and a dessert, and a homemade macaroni & cheese option for vegetarians and/or those who might not want a full dinner.
The payoff: A high-quality dinner that any restaurant would be proud to serve to paying clientele. A meal earlier this month featured chicken with a mushroom cream sauce, roasted potatoes, and roasted carrots and onions. Volunteers gather and pack up the food in the spacious Congo Church kitchen.
“It’s been super-well received and enormously satisfying on all fronts,” Robinson said of the program.
“The ability to access all of the stuff we have available at our fingertips has really been special.”
Everyone Eats funding lasts through the end of the calendar year, though supporters will seek an extension.
“The need doesn’t suddenly end when the calendar flips over on Jan. 1,” Robinson said. “We’re willing to participate as long as this program is going.”
It’s a program that’s paying dividends to everyone involved — even those who are just content to help out. Neuberger has made many friends during her involvement with the suppers.
“It’s a community project; you get to know the guests and a little about their lives,” she said. “I never forget, for a second; there, for the grace of God, go I.”
Donations of desserts, such as brownies and cookies are gratefully accepted at the Congo Church on Fridays. On Christmas, Everyone Eats volunteers hope to give every meal recipient a pie. Anyone who wants to help out, either with baking desserts or other chores, should contact Neuberger at fdneuberger@middlebury.edu, or 802-233-7588.
“The gift of giving is a wonderful gift,” she said.
John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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