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BRATTLEBORO — Everyone Eats brought economic support to local businesses and meals to many mouths during the COVID-19 pandemic, building stronger connections in the community in the meantime.

“I was absolutely stunned by the impact,” said Amanda Witman, a small business consultant who works with Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA). “I don’t know if I have ever seen a downtown program that has brought this much money directly to our local businesses.”

More than $2 million was budgeted for Everyone Eats in Brattleboro. Most of the federal funding tapped for the program went to local restaurants providing free meals, Witman said while sharing data and details at the Brattleboro Rotary Club meeting held remotely Thursday.

About 187,000 meals have been provided locally since the program started in August 2020. About 5,000 meals were being distributed weekly at the peak of the program and 1,233 households are reached weekly on average.

Sixteen local organizations providing the meals worked with one central hub, serving eight towns in Windham County. Twenty-seven restaurants participated.

The program aids community members affected in any way, shape or form by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as restaurants, farmers and food producers. Restaurants were paid to cook the meals required to be made up of at least 10 percent local ingredients on a weekly basis.

“Our hub, on average, has been using 24 percent,” Witman said, “so nearly a quarter of these ingredients are locally grown or produced in the Brattleboro area or Vermont.”

Witman credited DBA Executive Director Stephanie Bonin with moving right into action when the state shut down in March 2020 due to the virus. Bonin looked at ways to help downtown and businesses survive the pandemic.

Brainstorming on Everyone Eats began in April 2020 and the program launched four months later. It was intended to be a pilot program but it “spread so quickly that we weren’t the only community who began in August and by September 2020, there were hubs all over the state joining Brattleboro in distributing meals to their communities,” Witman said.

Everyone Eats was founded with two key principles in mind, she said.

“First, that we can maximize the benefit of relief funding with a multiplier effect to reach more than one group of beneficiaries with the same dollar,” Witman said. “And two, that we can best serve those in need by removing the stigma of receiving and reframing that experience as one that benefits the community on many important levels. Givers are receivers and receivers are givers, and that’s the way the world goes around.”

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As one of three people on the local Everyone Eats hub team, Witman works closely with restaurants and on administration. There are hubs in all 14 counties in Vermont.

Witman consults with the DBA and small business owners.

“When the COVID crisis started I just felt called to pivot and help support local businesses navigate the economic and logistical challenges that we were all facing,” she said. “We saw unprecedented innovation and collaboration during the COVID crisis with diverse Vermont organizations working together to meet extraordinary community needs while leveraging finite disaster and recovery funding.”

Everyone Eats also involved groups focused on assisting neighbors, individuals or families facing food insecurity, the elderly and businesses as well as state agencies and departments. The project gave different groups a reason to work together, Witman said, and “we hope that will continue.”

Witman also noted how Everyone Eats allowed for safe volunteer experiences with meal distribution occurring in outdoor spaces. Volunteers of different ages included college students and retirees.

Federal CARES Act funding for the program ended at the end of last year. Witman described those involved with Everyone Eats feeling compelled to keep it going.

Federal Emergency Management Agency provided funding to extend the program until June then later agreed to cover another three months of “ramp down,” she said. Meals are not anticipated to be provided via Everyone Eats after Sept. 30.

Now, Witman said, “we need to help transition people to long-term, sustainable programs and relationships to help ease food insecurity.”

Fewer meals are being provided and fewer restaurants are participating in the last phase of the program.

“We are seeing the need decrease, which is a really good thing,” Witman said. “A lot of people are back to work and experiencing less economic challenge and some kids are back in day care. Things are looking a little more like they should and there’s less stress on people in general.”

An earlier version misstated the number of households served.