Westminster, Vermont, 9/11/2020: Vermont Everyone Eats”, the program designed to provide nutritious meals to Vermonters impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, is going statewide. Already underway in various forms in pockets around the state – from Brattleboro to Burlington, from Hardwick down to Chester, and communities in between – the program will soon be brought to scale and made available in a dozen or more regional “Hubs” thanks to a $5 million Coronavirus Relief Fund allocation through the Agency of Commerce & Community Development (ACCD) to Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), the statewide administrator and fiscal agent for this unique and innovative program.
Vermont Everyone Eats (VEE) has been made possible by a Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) grant to Vermont from the federal CARES Act passed by Congress and signed into law on March 27th. The stated purpose of the grant for VEE, approved in July as part of the bill H.966 and called “Restaurants and Farmers Feeding the Hungry,” is “to provide assistance to Vermonters who are food insecure due to the COVID-19 public health emergency by engaging Vermont restaurants that have suffered economic harm due to [that] emergency to prepare meals using foodstuffs purchased from Vermont farms and food producers.” It was one of many initiatives supported by that funding, and state agencies and non-profit organizations throughout Vermont have been busy ramping up a wide range of programs and services to provide relief to thousands of residents whose lives were upended by the pandemic and to help them recover from its impact.
After collaborating with ACCD and a statewide Task Force to work out the countless details involved in its implementation, SEVCA announces the official rollout across Vermont of this first-of-its-kind effort in the country, with the first Hubs being awarded funding from the grant. To start with, ten organizations around the state serving their designated regions will receive grants from SEVCA to support their participating restaurants to prepare the meals and the farmers and food producers to supply the ingredients, and to operate and manage the programs in their areas through mid-December, 2020. This will be accomplished by providing relief to restaurants struggling to stay in business and keeping their workers employed, who will apply their skills and expertise to produce high quality, healthy meals for food-insecure Vermonters. In partnership with local food shelves, shelters, other service providers, businesses, community coalitions, and private citizens, they’re already producing and distributing 11,000 meals per week, and by its peak following the statewide rollout, that number is projected to rise to over 20,000 meals per week, significantly more that required by the grant.
On the average, at least 10% of the ingredients used by the participating restaurants to prepare the meals will be locally-sourced, coming from farms and other food producers located in Vermont. At present, more than 90 local VT restaurants and over 60 VT-based farms have signed on to the program, with more being added weekly, and the organizations already signed up or applying to serve as Hubs and receive a VEE grant include: Bar Antidote/Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes (Vergennes - northern Addison County), Center for an Agricultural Economy (Hardwick - Caledonia County, western NEK), Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (southern Windham County), Green Mountain Farm to School (Newport, Orleans County, northern NEK), Localvore (statewide online platform), ShiftMeals/Capstone (Washington, Lamoille , and Orange Counties), Springfield Family Center/Chester Helping Hands (northern Windham County, southern Windsor County), Vermont Farmers Food Center (Rutland County), Vital Communities/Upper Valley Haven (northern Windsor County, southern Orange County), Wilmington Works (western Windham County/Deerfield Valley), and ShiftMeals (Chittenden County).
Organizations, coalitions, and restaurants themselves in communities around the state joined forces to launch combined hunger relief and restaurant support pilot programs in the immediate aftermath of the economic devastation from Coronavirus. These pilots, initiated in March and April, were responding to the impacts of COVID-19 and the accompanying Executive Orders that all but closed down restaurants and the food producers that supplied them. That impact cascaded down to further threaten the employees, farmers and food producers dependent on those restaurants for their livelihood. The economic shutdown in the months that followed left many workers and small businesses with spiraling financial instability or ruin, which left restaurants and farmers without their customers. This often left them with no viable option except to work together to ensure that the doors remained open to enable local economies to keep going and local workers to stay employed.
As one of the five Vermont Community Action Agencies (CAAs), and nationally over 1,000, which address issues of food insecurity, economic crisis, and poverty in general, SEVCA management quickly saw the multiple benefits of expanding these pilot initiatives statewide, so when the Task Force and then the Legislature asked if it would serve as statewide program coordinator and fiscal agent, SEVCA’s Executive Director Steve Geller didn’t hesitate. “This was clearly an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate the power of effective public–private–nonprofit partnerships to help individuals and families, businesses and their employees, and local communities and their economies get relief and move toward recovery from this devastating crisis we’ve all become mired in,” he said. “Serving in the critical role as a catalyst to enable initiatives like this to happen is exactly what CAAs like SEVCA, born out of the War on Poverty, were created to do.” Based on testimony from Geller and other Task Force members, VEE was funded by the Legislature and SEVCA was specifically designated as the recipient and distributor of the funds.
As soon as the funding was secured, SEVCA started working with ACCD to develop the grant agreement and with the Task Force to plan and start implementing the program’s statewide expansion in compliance with the federal and state requirements. In early August, SEVCA hired Jean Hamilton, coordinator for the Skinny Pancake restaurants’ ShiftMeals initiative (one of the earliest pilot programs) in the position of Statewide VEE Program Coordinator, part of SEVCA’s COVID-19 Response Team. Under Hamilton’s leadership, in March, Skinny Pancake decided to use their PPP loan and a partnership with Vermont Community Foundation, Intervale Center, and High Meadows Fund to keep restaurant staff employed by producing meals for those in need. Their work, in coordination with VT Foodbank and other organizations and businesses, provided over 50,000 nutritious meals during the first three-month period.
According to Kevin Brennan, SEVCA’s COVID Projects Manager, “Jean brings a deep understanding of both the ecology and the economy of Vermont's food systems. Her work over the past 15 years is testament to why she was asked to become the Facilitator of the Statewide Task Force that developed the Vermont Everyone Eats program. We’re very fortunate to now have her continue that great work as the Statewide VEE Program Coordinator.” Also continuing in their leadership role with the program are members of the Task Force who are developing, guiding and overseeing its rollout. They include representatives of the VT Hospitality Coalition, Hunger Free Vermont, VT Foodbank, VT Sustainable Jobs Fund, VT Fresh Network, VT Community Foundation, VT Assn. of Area Agencies on Aging, Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, Capstone, ACCD, VAAFM, and AHS.
VEE’s rollout and ramp-up is forging ahead at full steam, at a pace, scale, and coverage level of the state that is exceeding all expectations, according to program leaders. In fact, at the current rate of meal production and Hub / restaurant expansion, they expect to spend down all the grant funds prior to the December 20th deadline and believe they could do even more if additional funds became available. The result is a varied and broad distribution of existing local and regional initiatives as well as a number of new programs just now rolling out around the state, each relying on the diverse strengths, knowledge and experience of their own areas and partnerships. They include a wide range of program models, such as: A 200 household delivery model; sign up/paper vouchers for a local restaurant meal; large-scale meal pickup and delivery of frozen and fresh meals for organizations, individuals and households; and an innovative digital voucher program for use at restaurants around the state, focusing on those ‘last mile’ harder-to-reach locales. Additional funding is still available for areas of the state not yet included in the program.
Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) was established in 1965 as part of the national War on Poverty to address the needs of low-income residents of Windham and Windsor Counties. In addition to providing the “safety net” for households in financial crisis, its services help them stabilize their lives, make their homes safe and energy-efficient, take strides toward becoming self-reliant, and enable their children to escape the generational poverty cycle. These goals are achieved through such programs as Family Services, Crisis Fuel and Housing Assistance, 3SquaresVT (Food Stamp) Outreach, Head Start, Weatherization, Home Repair, Small Business Support & Assistance, Financial Fitness Education, Matched Savings, Job Readiness Training, Tax Preparation Assistance, Thrift Stores, and Health / Recovery Navigation.