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Documentary puts Vermont food insecurity center stage

THE NEW DOCUMENTARY “Ramen Day” documents how people came together during the COVID pandemic to distribute prepared meals that would feed hungry people and support local food businesses.

MIDDLEBURY — The hunger pangs have subsided but are still fresh in Val’s mind.

The Addison County resident tearfully recounted how, while in economic crisis during the early stages of the COVID pandemic, she’d go without food to ensure her daughter had the resources she needed for school.

Dark days indeed for Val and thousands of other Vermonters whose livelihoods were essentially suspended by the worldwide economic shutdown associated with the pandemic.

Perhaps that’s why Val described Bethanie Farrell — founder of Middlebury’s Giving Fridge — as a “rainbow of light,” who employed dogged determination and resources from the Vermont Everyone Eats (VEE) program to make sure she and her daughter never went to bed hungry.

“To have healthy meals that would give me energy and my daughter the energy to continue her education, was huge,” she said. 

Val and Farrell are among several people whose pandemic-era, food insecurity stories and observations have been immortalized in a new film by Middlebury filmmaker Corey Hendrickson. His new documentary — to premiere at Montpelier’s Capitol Theater next Tuesday,  April 16 — is called “Ramen Day.” It charts the evolution and impacts of the wildly successful Vermont Everyone Eats program that kept Vermonters fed, restaurants afloat and farmers cultivating during the COVID crisis.

Funded by FEMA and the Vermont Legislature, VEE was a statewide, $49 million pandemic relief program that provided resources to farmers and restaurants to produce healthy meals for food-insecure people during the pandemic.

According to Southeastern Vermont Community Action, which served as fiscal and administrative agent for VEE, the program involved more that 270 Vermont farmers and food producers and some 320 restaurants who made almost 4 million meals for hungry people between August 2020 and March 2023.

Several Addison County restaurants were part of the collaboration, including Jessica’s, Two Brothers, Bar Antidote, and American Flatbread, among others. It proved a critical infusion of funds for many restaurants at a time when they were shuttered — or had severely reduced seating capacity — due to COVID protocols.

VEE’s dual investment in both food security and the local food economy resulted in a $78 million increase in local spending by restaurants and farms outside of income received through the program, according to state officials.

Hendrickson’s introduction to VEE came through Bethanie Farrell and the Giving Fridge — a community refrigerator in downtown Middlebury that took off in a big way. Giving Fridge became a close ally of VEE, and Farrell worked with its various players to get food to area residents hit hard by the pandemic.

“My world had kind of been put on ice,” Hendrickson said, harkening back to 2020. So, he decided to make a film about the Giving Fridge — which he called “an amazing story” unto itself.

As he got into the project, Hendrickson began to see the broader impact of VEE. With encouragement from Farrell and support from Southeastern Vermont Community Action and other entities, he broadened his film’s scope to include other VEE associates, including nonprofits and restaurants in Springfield, Hardwick, Burlington, Montpelier and Bennington.

He conducted around 40 interviews in soup kitchens, homes, food shelves, restaurants, offices and the streets. His local interviewees included Farrell; the VEE program beneficiary named Val; Dottie Neuberger, a Congregational Church of Middlebury volunteer who spearheaded a series of weekly community suppers during the pandemic; and Prof. Molly Anderson, director of Middlebury College’s Food Studies program.

In the film, Anderson offers insights into the various stages of hunger and how the state and federal social services safety net has evolved — and largely failed.

MIDDLEBURY FILMMAKER COREY Hendrickson’s new film, “Ramen Day” will premiere at Montpelier’s Capitol Theater on April 16. The documentary, featuring interviews from those who engineered and benefited from the Vermont Everyone Eats pandemic-relief program, includes testimonials from several Addison County folks.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

“The charitable system was originally set up as an emergency system,” Anderson explains in “Ramen Day.” “We should start building up the social safety net, so people never slip off into food insecurity again.”

Also quoted in the film is a Brandon-area resident named Miranda. She tells Hendrickson that she only has a microwave and mini fridge, meaning she can’t do much, if any, healthy food prep at her home. The VEE meals came fully prepared, which she called a huge benefit.

“(VEE) helps me and my family get fresh vegetables, fresh meals — and they’re healthy,” she said.

Having received a ton of quality input, Hendrickson found it tough cutting “Ramen Day” down to its 30-minute documentary length.

“You really had to kind of come down to ‘Who said it best,’” he said.

Hendrickson was clearly touched by what his interviewees told him. He said he’d come home drained after a day filming in the field, experiencing feelings of gratitude, compassion and motivation after hearing from those implementing and receiving VEE benefits.

“To see the amount of work that was being done just so people could get through the day and not go to sleep hungry, was so moving,” he said. “Every time I’d get tired of the editing, I’d take a step back and listen to the stories and get completely reinvigorated.

“THE BEST DAMN FILM”

“Maybe I’m kind of a softy, but I don’t cry a lot while I’m working, but there were several times I was full waterworks,” Hendrickson confessed of the impact some of his interviewees’ testimonials had on him — particularly accounts of children going without food, or parents going without so their kids could have enough.

“The amount of bravery people had to share that stuff was incredible, so I had to make this the best damn film I ever made.”

Hendrickson’s film/photography clients have included American Express, Apple, Facebook, Food & Wine, HBO, Johnson & Johnson, the New Yorker, Patagonia, Phish, Smithsonian Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Vanity Fair and the Wall Street Journal. He currently serves as the director of photography and editor of “Weekends with Yankee,” a nationally broadcast adventure travel show for PBS, and has also filmed for several forthcoming documentaries as well as for PBS’s “American Masters.”

While VEE wrapped a year ago, the state last August launched a similar offering to assist those affected by massive flooding that affected parts of nine Vermont counties in July of 2023. It’s called Vermont Emergency Eats, and — like VEE — will be temporary.

Farrell, in “Ramen Day,” laments that hunger will be a perennial problem that needs a permanent fix.

“I think all of us who work in food insecurity are trying to yell from the mountaintops that it’s only gotten worse,” she said. “Things are more expensive now, (the cost of) living is more expensive now than it’s ever been. These issues of trying to make ends meet aren’t going anywhere.”

Farrell said she was pleased to work with Hendrickson and believes his film can do a lot to raise awareness about food insecurity.

“VEE is the type of program that, I believe, should be a permanent fixture in our communities, not just an emergency response, and this film will help to showcase the need as well as the success of the program.,” she said. “It’s not just a food insecurity program, it’s an economic development and local food systems program. It touches the lives of so many. Giving Fridge’s model has always dovetailed nicely with VEE and continues to provide these services throughout Addison County, but my hope is that this film will help to bolster the idea that programs like VEE and Giving Fridge could be permanent programs in communities throughout Vermont and the U.S.”

The Tuesday, April 16, showing of “Ramen Day” at Montpelier’s Capitol Theater will begin at 5 p.m.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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