A program that serves local farmers and restaurants while providing meals for Vermonters experiencing food insecurity will continue through the end of the year, despite indications it might have needed to wrap up at the end of September.

Vermont Everyone Eats started in August 2020 as a response to COVID-19, which caused many to be at home rather than working, exacerbating the problem of hunger in Vermont. The situation also harmed restaurants that relied on visiting customers as well as farmers who had relied on the restaurants to buy their produce and other products.

A release sent by staff with the program on Thursday said over the course of its existence, Vermont Everyone Eats through its 14 community hubs has worked with more than 200 restaurants, sourcing ingredients from more than 300 farmers, to distribute more than 1.6 million meals to Vermonters.

Jean Hamilton, of Southeastern Vermont Community Action who is the statewide coordinator for Vermont Everyone Eats, said the program was expected to expire at the end of September but now there is funding available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“FEMA has had authority through the COVID pandemic to reimburse emergency expenses at 100% cost versus, in pre-pandemic times, expenses were typically reimbursed at 75% cost so with that extension it created a very easy opportunity for our program to continue with no change to the funding structure,” she said.

Before learning there would be FEMA funding, Hamilton said, the members of a statewide task force and representatives of the 14 hubs had been talking about how to “steer” the program into the future.

“In August and September, we were gearing up, looking at a potential program end date of Sept. 30 and talking about what do we transition to next, knowing that there is a deep commitment from all of the people who have been involved to taking forward, at a bare minimum, some of the really powerful lessons learned from this programming,” she said.

She said there was a range of opinions with some suggesting the connections made could be beneficially applied to other programs created to help Vermonters and others wanted to continue the program as it has existed for more than a year.

According to the release, the Vermont Farmers Food Center in Rutland has worked with almost 25 different restaurants and caterers to provide about 3,000 meals per week distributed with a drive-thru system based out of its West Street site. Community organizations and volunteers helped by delivering meals to those without access to reliable transportation.

The food center distributed meals for Vermont Everyone Eats to more than 15 towns in Rutland County. Over the course of the program more than 163,000 meals have been provided in Rutland County, contributing more than $1.6 million in revenue to local restaurants.

“A huge success (for Vermont Everyone Eats) has been supporting restaurants and farms and food producers, so really bringing in that connectivity between community members who are feeling vulnerable to hunger and connecting those to local economic assets like restaurants and farms. These aren’t competing investments. We don’t have to think about economic development in competition with social services,” Hamilton said.

She added that while the program has not solved the problem of hunger in Vermont, she believes it is innovative because of the connection it has established between economic development and feeding those in need.

Hamilton said she hoped another positive has been to create some awareness about who needs assistance like a meal or food resources. She said she hoped people who participated learned, by volunteering or receiving assistance, that those in need are not a group of “others” or people in perpetual need of aid. Sometimes, as the pandemic showed, they are people who just need to get through a crisis, Hamilton said.

Representatives of the hubs at the Vermont Farmers Food Center and Capstone Community Action could not be reached on Thursday.

Food center staff plan to continue to distribute meals through a drive-thru, which allows for low-contact pick up, until the end of the year on Mondays and Thursdays. Satellite locations will also be set up for pickup in other parts of the county.

While Hamilton said the various hubs will continue to provide meals, there have been changes made since the earliest days, so she suggested visiting the local website or otherwise contacting the nearest hub to be sure pickup is available on a particular date and at a particular site.

Organizers will consider ways to continue the program in some form in 2022, according to Hamilton.

For more information about Vermont Everyone Eats distribution and availability, visit vteveryoneeats.org, bit.ly/captstonenutritionprogram or call 211.

Rutland County residents can send an email to gdavy@vermontfarmersfoodcenter.org.

Disclosure: Executive Editor Steven Pappas is chair of the board of directors of Capstone Community Action.

patrick.mcardle

@rutlandherald.com

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