On most weekday afternoons, a line of cars winds down Flat Street in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont. Volunteers wearing masks and bright yellow vests weave back and forth between them, ferrying bags full of food to drivers as the procession snakes through the small parking lot.
This distribution site for Vermont Everyone Eats!, a food relief initiative that pays restaurants to prepare meals for those in need, has been providing roughly 650 free meals a day to area residents since early August. And as the program begins to expand to more communities in the Green Mountain state, it’s being eyed as a potential model to replicate in other areas of the country.
Brattleboro, a town of about 11,000 in southern Vermont, was the first municipality in the state to roll out the program as overseen by the Southeast Vermont Community Action agency. Using federal CARES Act funds distributed through a grant from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the organization pays local restaurants $10 per meal, with the stipulation that 10 percent of the food must be sourced from local farms.
The concept of tapping small restaurants to support food relief efforts came from several programs that popped up independently in Vermont communities as a response to the pandemic, according to Carolyn Sweet, director of planning and development for SEVCA. Many of those initiatives are now in the process of becoming Everyone Eats hubs in order to receive a portion of the $5 million in CARES funding allocated for the program, she said.
“It’s that level of regional innovation at the local, regional level that allowed us really to take a look at all those models in Vermont and create a program that made space for whatever sort of a program a community might emerge,” Sweet said.
Food insecurity in the state has increased by about 46% during the Covid-19 outbreak, according to the nonprofit organization Hunger Free Vermont, which is a member of the state’s Everyone Eats task force.
Rural areas face a number of challenges in addressing hunger and food insecurity, Executive Director Anore Horton said, such as transportation barriers and food deserts that can make taking advantage of federal benefits difficult.
Horton said many in rural areas also face a stigma around accessing food benefits due to a strong emphasis on self-sufficiency in small communities.
“I think what the Brattleboro Everyone Eats program, in its success, is showing us is that this is a kind of model that people really feel good about using for food access,” Horton said. “Because they feel that while yes, meals at no charge are helping them and their family, they’re helping the restaurants at the same time. They’re helping their community.”
Since launching at the beginning of August, organizers have distributed nearly 12,000 meals to residents of Brattleboro and four surrounding rural communities, according to Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, which is facilitating the program locally.
Those in need of meals are not required to provide any proof of income, but they are asked to fill out a form with optional demographic information. Local nonprofits, food shelves, and mutual aid organizations can pick up meals in bulk to deliver to their clients, and the alliance is also working with food relief organizations to help participants connect with other food benefit programs.
“I know our hunger relief community is excited to have a program that’s pretty easy for people to plug into and has a lot of familiar reference points of the restaurants they know and love from their community, to help kind of bridge that gap between potentially having never used food assistance to them coming on board and learning about some of the really valuable resources like SNAP and WIC,” said Jean Hamilton, Everyone Eats statewide coordinator.
Leda Scheintaub, co-owner of Brattleboro south Indian restaurant Dosa Kitchen, said participating in Vermont Everyone Eats! has been a “great infusion” for her business, which saw its anticipated catering contracts disappear completely due to the pandemic.
“We moved here 11 years ago from New York City, and we wanted to be in a small town,”Scheintaub said. It’s a great community, and this program has been helping so much to keep this community alive and thriving.It makes us so much more happy to be here.”
The same has been true for A Vermont Table, a Brattleboro-based catering company that opened a brick and mortar restaurant in February just before the pandemic hit. According to the owner, Coridon Bratton, the company was able to hire back three of its kitchen staff part-time to help prepare about 300 meals a week for Everyone Eats.
“This program has been huge for us,” Bratton said. It’s just enough to keep us secure, and then just knowing that it’s there — there’s just not a lot this year that we can count on.” And Everyone Eats is something that we’ve been able to count on.”
Another aspect of the program — the requirement that 10% of the food is sourced from local farms — is aimed at supporting an agricultural industry that has been hard hit by lost revenue from shuttered restaurants, according to Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts.
Though the initiative has been credited as a success so far, its future is uncertain, as the federal CARES Act funding it relies on will expire in mid-December. According to Sweet, SEVCA is exploring options to continue the model post-pandemic, and has also begun developing an online voucher system to streamline the process should it continue in the future.
In the meantime, organizers have been fielding calls from other states, including Idaho and Maine, about how to replicate the program.
“I think it’s an incredible opportunity for Vermont to be a pilot for the rest of the country, and I really hope that comes to fruition,” said Bonin of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance. “ … I know that it’s scalable, and I really hope that other states do take the leap.”
For more information, visit www.sevca.org/vt-everyone-eats.