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Vermont Everyone Eats gets boost through end of year

VERMONT — Vermont Everyone Eats (VEE), the unprecedented COVID-19 response program that provides meal assistance to Vermonters in need while supporting local restaurants, farmers and food producers, has received an extension to continue programming through the end of December. Program managers had previously anticipated that the program would end on Thursday, Sept. 30, but Vermont Agency of Commerce & Community Development this week extended the program contract through Dec. 31 to mitigate the ongoing economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that continue to challenge the state’s hard-hit food service industry as well as many food insecure households.

State officials on Thursday said they would use $1.2 million of money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund VEE through year’s end.

Southeast Vermont Community Action Agency (SEVCA) is contracted by the state to develop, implement, and administer the program, which operates in all 14 Vermont counties through a network of 11 Community Hubs.

Two of those hubs are in Addison County: The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes and Bar Antidote working with Mary’s Inn at Baldwin Creek and Live Young Kitchen serve 15 towns (mostly in the northern part of the county), and the Charter House Coalition in Middlebury working with Rosie’s Restaurant and Jessica’s at the Swift House serves seven county towns.

For just over a year, Vermont Everyone Eats has been bringing restaurants, food producers and community members together to help lift one another up through the challenges of COVID-19, said Jean Hamilton, Vermont Everyone Eats Statewide Coordinator.

“Through an extensive network of partnerships and collaborations, over 10,000 Vermonters have received delicious, nourishing meals and at the same time helped local restaurants and farms get through this economically rocky time,” Hamilton said. “It is astounding to watch so many people work together to feed and care for one another. A lot of hard work has gone into this program, but everyone I talk to is overjoyed that we can continue for another three months. Our communities and our restaurants continue to face the economic hardships created by this pandemic; I am so proud that our partners across the state agencies, FEMA, legislature, SEVCA and all of the local communities are continuing this program.”

Even as Vermont celebrates its high vaccination rate, residents and local businesses continue to face pandemic-related crises. Many Vermonters are navigating the confusing maze of shifting conditions and resources like the ending of the eviction moratorium, changing housing assistance, reduced unemployment benefits, and SNAP eligibility. To help families, restaurants, and farmers continue to cope with the lingering impacts of COVID-19, Vermont Everyone Eats has been extended to keep providing meals to everyone experiencing food insecurity, while at the same time increasing income for struggling restaurants and farmers due to still-turbulent economic conditions.

This unique program sets an example for how a successful, local food systems focused strategy can uplift communities by addressing food insecurity while simultaneously supporting local community economies and resilient local food networks. The program was inspired by grassroots initiatives from communities across Vermont that collaboratively advocated for statewide funding to mitigate the high levels of food insecurity and food industry instability exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. In July 2020, Vermont lawmakers allocated funds from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to launch Vermont Everyone Eats and the program was subsequently extended with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Vermont Everyone Eats is operated through a network of community hubs located throughout Vermont.

RELIABLE LOCAL BUSINESS DESPITE GLOBAL UNCERTAINTY

Since the start of VEE in July 2020, restaurants throughout all 14 Vermont counties have made and, in collaboration with 11 regional hubs & distribution sites, distributed 1.6 million meals to Vermonters experiencing food insecurity and financial hardship as a result of the pandemic — approximately 30,000 meals per week. Since its inception, VEE has provided a stabilizing source of business to more than 200 Vermont restaurants throughout the rollercoaster of challenges the food service & hospitality industries have faced since the start of the pandemic. A recent survey conducted by SEVCA found that 89% of restaurants participating in VEE reported retaining jobs and 64% reported adding or expanding jobs as a result of the program, while 46% reported being able to increase staff wages.

SUPPORTING LOCAL FARMS

By stipulating that all participating restaurants must source at least 10% of their ingredients locally, VEE has also played an important role in providing reliable income to local farms throughout this period of disrupted supply chains. A survey administered by SEVCA to participating restaurants found that 95% of respondents reported that VEE was instrumental in developing and strengthening their supply chain relationships within Vermont.

The Funj Shrooming Co. of St. Albans recently expressed how essential the program has been for their farm this year: “I should say the Everyone Eats program has really saved our farm this year. It’s been a huge help — some of our most consistent sales were because of it.”

The VEE Brattleboro hub, which has distributed more than 200,000 meals since the start of the program, has received positive feedback on the program’s local ingredient sourcing stipulation. “It has been an honor to work with everyone on this project! We are continuing to purchase products from Food Connects [a local food hub] because we discovered products that we really love and our guests have enjoyed the local aspect of it.”

MORE THAN JUST A MEAL

Access to healthy, nutritious food is vital to the health and productivity of our communities. VEE requires that meals meet USDA MyPlate guidelines, encouraging a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fresh fruits & vegetables, which has illuminated the positive effects of access to nutritionally balanced meals for individuals and families across the state. Allowing restaurants to do what they do best, VEE has ensured that more Vermonters have access to nutritious, prepared meals that taste great, and many of the meal recipients have expressed that the program has meant more to them than just food support.

One meal recipient receiving meals from The Giving Fridge, a VEE distribution site in Middlebury, says “I cannot tell you how grateful I am for your healthy, wholesome meals! The fact that I can access your program, tailored to my health needs as well as current life circumstances has given me a viable option which other programs are not able to provide, so it, and you, have been a godsend!”

Another Giving Fridge recipient says, “This program has brought some normalcy in an unstable and financially insecure time for our family. The food we receive is healthy, local and delicious. Since we have been impacted for a while now, we have received other food programs but found they were high in sodium, preservatives and processed. It’s difficult to be experiencing hardships and also feel unhealthy from unbalanced food options both physically and mentally. We feel overwhelmingly appreciative and grateful of the food we receive. We are in a vulnerable position and it feels comforting to know that our communities have come together to help us through.”

INNOVATIVE DISTRIBUTION

Across the board, VEE has proven to be an innovative, impactful program that shows promise beyond COVID-19 response. Through varied distribution methods, VEE has enabled communities to come together to address food and economic insecurity while also revitalizing the local economy. Tapping into their technological capabilities and wide network of 100+ local restaurants, Vermont based app Localvore has been instrumental in facilitating more than 500,000 VEE meal distributions across the state via digital vouchers redeemable through their app. Localvore allows restaurants to participate in the program while operating normally for call-ahead takeout orders, and consumers who use the app are able to redeem their meals through their contactless ordering redemption system.

For those without access to smart phones or internet, community hubs and distribution sites throughout Vermont have employed various methods to make sure meals reach families and individuals who need them most.

Vermont Farmers Food Center in Rutland has worked with 23 different restaurants to provide an average of 4,000 meals per week via on-site drive-through distribution as well as via collaborations with local community organizations, partner restaurants and volunteers to deliver meals to those in more rural areas without access to reliable transportation.

Charter House Coalition, a VEE distribution hub in Middlebury has served more than 12,000 meals since the start of the program via their Community Supper, providing between 250-300 meals per week. Hot meals are distributed by delivery volunteers and pick ups from the Congregational Church every Friday.

For more information about the program or how to receive a meal, visit vteveryoneeats.org.

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