BRATTLEBORO — A federally funded program that served as a financial lifeline for local businesses is set to expire on Dec. 30.
“Everyone Eats has been consistent and reliable income for Duo during so much turbulence,” said Jason Lively, owner of Duo Restaurant on Main Street. “When normal business has been so unpredictable, it has been such a relief to have work I can count on. It has allowed me to bring back staff that would otherwise be completely dependent on unemployment.”
Everyone Eats was not just about his business though, said Lively.
“It has also given me a means to stay connected with the local community, by putting meals on their tables.”
Everyone Eats, which is funded through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, was set up to provide meals for Vermonters struggling to put food on the table. But it was also established to provide income to Vermont restaurants, farmers and food producers, many of whom were hit hard by the economic downturn precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But with a new stimulus package in limbo in Washington, D.C., local business owners and the organizations that provide meals to the hungry are wondering if there will be funds available to continue the program or if a backup plan is necessary.
“This program has really helped to smooth out our cash flow and help us keep people fully employed at our company while we all ride out this pandemic,” said Lisa Lorimer, co-founder of MamaSezz, which produces whole food plant-based meals. “We really hope that as Vermonters we can find the funding we need to keep the program running into the new year to continue to assist all of us during these difficult times.”
In addition to providing plant-based meals, MamaSezz has also been helping to deliver meals prepared by other purveyors.
Other businesses that have been supported by Everyone Eats include Hazel, Elliot Street Fish & Chips, Yalla, Superfresh, Echo, Shin La, the Brattleboro Food Co-op, Dutton Farm, the Putney Food Co-op, Putney General Store, The Gleanery, Green Mountain Orchards, The Works, Delectably Delicious, Andrezj Polish Kitchen, A Vermont Table, The Porch, Masala House, Dosa Kitchen, TJ Buckley’s and Fast Eddie’s.
Liz Ehrenberg, the owner of The Gleanery in Putney, said the program allowed them to connect to the community in new and meaningful ways.
“Even though we have been feeding people in Putney for eight years, the program has broadened our scope — and in a time when connection is so important, and so difficult,” she said.
And it’s not just the food insecure and the restaurants that are benefiting from the program, Ehrenberg said.
“If the program continues, we will be able to provide a predictable source of some income for the farmers and producers that we partner with throughout the winter when everyone can face more difficult times,” she said.
If the program runs out of funds, said Ehrenberg, it will have repercussions throughout the community.
“Those most affected will be the families in our community who are in need and will no longer receive ready-to-eat, healthy homemade meals,” she said. “We will most certainly have to reduce our hours to control our losses. This will likely mean a reduction in employment, as well as a significant reduction in the amount of local goods and produce we are able to purchase. If Everyone Eats does not continue, that critical safety net will be exhausted at an unnerving rate.”
The program requires participants to obtain at least 10 percent of their ingredients from local producers. But Jean Hamilton, who oversees the program out of her office in Westminster at Southeastern Vermont Community Action, said it’s been closer to 20 and 25 percent.
Hamilton said without additional funding the restaurants face “a grim, unknown future.”
The program got its start in Burlington in late March when Benjy Adler, the owner of the Skinny Pancake franchise created ShiftMeals to provide to food-industry workers and musicians. Hamilton, before arriving at SEVCA, managed the program. It first started with donations, and by June, Skinny Pancake was one of more than 100 restaurants around Vermont getting CARES Act money through Everyone Eats.
In Brattleboro, Stephanie Bonin and the Downtown Business Alliance were doing their own thing with the Nourishing Artists program, providing meals to local artists with a matching grant from Next Chapter.
But when the grant ran out, Bonin reached out to Gary Holloway, the downtown program manager for the Vermont Agency for Commerce and Community Development. Everyone Eats was developed out of the models created by ShiftWorks and Nourishing Artists, said Holloway.
During the first week of August, Everyone Eats had its trial run in Brattleboro, supplying 2,200 meals between Aug. 3 and Aug. 6.
Everyone Eats also distributed 1,300 meals in Brattleboro for Thanksgiving, Bonin said.
Brattleboro seemed to be the ideal location for the pilot program, said Holloway, because it has the ability to meet the demand. He also said the state had a very strong partner in the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and the “very active” Hunger Council of Windham County, as well as other food access organizations.
Bonin said she had no doubt Brattleboro’s restaurants could provide the meals so quickly.
“That’s what restaurants do, they feed people,” she said.
Since that pilot program, Everyone Eats has expanded across Vermont with $6 million in funding from the CARES Act. In Brattleboro, that was $34,000 a week pumped into the local economy, for four days a week of meals at $10 each to local restaurants.
Bonin said the program has made up 70 to 80 percent of the revenue for a number of the participating restaurants.
But program funding expires on Dec. 30 if Congress doesn’t extend the CARES Act or doesn’t come up with additional funding.
“We’ve been here,” said Bonin. “Why are we having to be in a position of such unknowns in terms of funding, when the pandemic we are living through is at its worse?”
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told the Reformer the House of Representatives has passed two separate comprehensive relief packages in the past six months, both of which were rejected without consideration by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
“The compromise bill unveiled in the Senate does not include all that we need, but it is immediate and timely relief for the small businesses struggling to keep the lights on, for families struggling to put food on the table and keep their homes warm, for people who lost their jobs, and for the state and local governments working around the clock to keep people healthy,” Welch said. “With promising vaccines just around the corner, I welcome and support any compromise that brings immediate relief to help businesses and families make it through the remaining months of this brutal pandemic.”
“We are really hoping the CARES Act gets extended and there is additional stimulus,” said Hamilton, noting more than 500,000 meals were paid for through Everyone Eats. Statewide, there are more than 2,200 people experiencing homelessness who are residing in Vermont hotels and have been receiving meals through Everyone Eats.
Holloway said SEVCA and other agencies in Vermont are working with people who have benefited from the program and making sure they continue to get assistance when Everyone Eat ends.
“It’s an ongoing conversation,” said Holloway. “How can we continue as a state and a community to support the hospitality industry during this tough time coming into the winter.”
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about if and how programs like Everyone Eats will continue, but we know that 3SquaresVT will definitely be here to help folks out,” wrote Jenna O’Donnell the community engagement manager for Hunger Free Vermont, in an email.
Christine Colascione, the director of the Foodworks program at Groundworks Collaborative, said the program was more than just about providing healthy meals to people living in hotel rooms.
“If you are staying at a hotel and you don’t have a home or possessions, food is one of the only comforts you have,” she said. “For people who have been experiencing so much uncertainty and panic, Everyone Eats helped a lot of people. It made people feel like they had dignity.”
Everyone Eats is one of a few programs helping to feed over 150 houseless people in hotels, with help from meals provided by WNESU through Economic Services and Loaves and Fishes, said Colascione.
"After Everyone Eats ends, we may begin to request the support of community meal teams again for our seasonal overflow shelter, if this can be done safely," she said.
Groundworks will continue to rely on community resources, but will also supply hotplates and cooking utensils to people living in motels so they can prepare their own meals with ingredients from its food pantry, Foodworks. Nonetheless, said Colascione, she hopes Congress can provide the funds necessary to continue Everyone Eats.
Nicole Reisman, of Nicole’s Kitchen in Brattleboro, said if funding for Everyone Eats is not extended, she hopes she can pick up some of the slack. Reisman has been supplying meals two days a week while Everyone Eats has been supplying meals four days a week.
“This is an urgent situation,” Reisman said about the expiration of funding. “And I am more than capable of cooking large quantities of food.”
But Reisman said that to do so, she needs a bigger kitchen and more funding, but it’s unrealistic to expect the community to come up with the $34,000 a week to continue Everyone Eats.
“There is no fairy godmother about to arrive and hand out cash or food,” said Reisman. “If the program ends, we are facing a severe cliff. If what we are trying to do is feed hungry people, we need to work in tandem with Everyone Eats in pursuing more money for the program. But we also need to be realistic about how much money we can raise through grassroots efforts and philanthropy. There’s a tsunami coming and we’ve got to do something about it now.”
Reisman, in an effort to qualify for additional funding, has recently registered as a nonprofit in Vermont and is finishing up paperwork to receive a federal designation as well.
Last winter, Reisman used the idled kitchen of Top of the Hill Grill on Putney Road. Now, with owner Jon Julian operating a soup cart in the winter, his kitchen is no longer available to Reisman. Currently, she is working out of the Stone Church on Main Street, but Reisman said it doesn’t have the equipment necessary “to push out an industrial quantity of food.”
But with the community’s help, she thinks she can find a more suitable place soon.
“There are so many empty kitchens in this town,” she said.
Reisman said providing a professionally cooked, homemade meal is not just about providing nutrition, but also about providing emotional support through food and connecting to people.
But if Everyone Eats expires and if the infection rate continues to climb, more people will be out of work, meaning more people will need help.
And with one-third of Vermonters considered food insecure, “It’s not going to get better anytime soon.”