everyone eats

File -- Madison Kremer and Cynthia Veazie, of Shires Housing, fill a resident’s trunk with food from Vermont’s Everyone Eats program at Orchard Village in Bennington in February 2021.

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BRATTLEBORO — Everyone Eats, the pandemic-era program that kept hungry Vermonters, struggling restaurants, farmers and food producers afloat during COVID-19 in an unique collaborative effort, delivered its last meal Friday.

The statewide program’s emergency federal funding has ended, as are most of the pandemic-era programs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent $45 million for 3.6 million meals over 32 months on the program, with a small slice of funding from the state of Vermont in its waning days.

The program gave restaurants a financial lifeline to keep operating, which in turn created markets for farmers who had unclaimed food on their shelves because of the widespread closure of restaurants and stores. The program, which started in August 2020, delivered meals ready to eat to those in need.

The last delivery is Friday.

The program had many of its roots in a Brattleboro project that started in the early, scary days of the pandemic: “Nourishing Artists,” the brainchild of Stephanie Bonin, then the executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.

Bonin, in an interview Thursday, said “Nourishing Artists” raised money locally to help feed many of the area’s artists, who were struggling financially. It was a success, and Bonin, after consulting with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Affairs, learned that Skinny Pancake, a small restaurant chain based in Burlington, was doing a similar program, but aimed at restaurant workers. Many Zoom meetings later, Everyone Eats was born.

After the creative brainstorming, Bonin said, Vermont Everyone Eats was funded by FEMA. It was expanded to bring in farmers and food producers, who were equally hard hit by the pandemic’s closures.

She said the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets quickly got involved, as did the Department of Health and Human Services.

The overriding concern and goal, she said, was feeding people.

And the program thrived based on the concept of “reciprocity,” different groups and parts of the economy helping other parts. “It was ‘I’m helping you,’ and ‘I’m helping you,’” she said.

There was an incredible sense of energy and pride as the program came together in 2020.

Bonin said the Vermont program was unique in the country, although she said the program would get calls about how Vermont had pulled it together and pulled it off.

The statewide program was administered through Southeastern Vermont Community Action, as FEMA funneled its funding, and SEVCA in turn sent the money out to the 12 different hubs that were established statewide to create the network that made the meals and delivered them.

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Restaurants all over the state, including in Bennington County, have been involved for months, if not years.

Volunteers played a key role. On Wednesday, one of those volunteers, Jean Momaney of Dummerston, was picking up bags of meals at the Retreat Farm farmstead on Wednesday to deliver to two families in her hometown. Momaney said the meals were a lifeline to struggling Vermonters, who even now are coping with skyrocketing food costs, high energy prices and ongoing health issues.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do without it.”

According to Amanda Witman, who handled Everyone Eats’ communications and stakeholder engagement for SEVCA, said at its height during the end of 2020, Everyone Eats was delivering 50,000 meals a week.

As the coronavirus mutated and new variants emerged, the program was extended repeatedly.

“The need was really great,” she said. For the past three months, Everyone Eats was still delivering 25,000 meals weekly, statewide. In all, there were 700 restaurants, farmers, food producers and community organizations involved, Witman said. “And many, many volunteers have been involved,” she said.

“It’s been a lifeline for so many people,” she said. “The levels of hunger in Vermont are very high.”

Where people are going to find food going forward is a concern for many, she said.

Bonin said she is now working on a program to keep some aspects of Everyone Eats alive. She said many people need prepared meals, either because of special needs or they don’t have access to kitchens.

The legacy of Everyone Eats, she said, is the involvement of restaurant chefs and entrepreneurs into the discussion about food security. Previously, said Bonin, who also has a background in the restaurant business, the food industry was tapped for donations, such as a philanthropic dinner.

One benefit of the pandemic, she said, was the creative problem-solving that took over. Because a pandemic had never hit the country and economy before, people didn’t have a ready solution in mind.

“People were looking for new solutions,” she said. “COVID was a really unique period of time.”


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