Combating Food Insecurity, One Meal at a Time

September 18, 2020
Three people package products at a table in front of a store.
Vermont’s commitment to local food runs deep. It’s no surprise then that one of the most successful and innovative programs to combat the one-two punch of closed businesses and increased food insecurity brought on by COVID-19 got its start at a Vermont-based restaurant.

Skinny Pancake, a local creperie, began a program called Shift Meals to provide food relief to its workers when the restaurant’s multiple locations were shuttered at the start of the pandemic. Soon Shift Meals was partnering with the Vermont Foodbank, which purchased 20,000 meals from the program, according to NBC5. The program quickly grew: Shift Meals director Jean Hamilton told WCAX that since April, they’ve given out over 50,000 meals. She says the program was the catalyst for funding statewide restaurant-based food relief with federal CARES Act money. In July, Seven Days reported that the state had allocated $5M for a new program called Everyone Eats! The hope is that by the end of December, Everyone Eats! will have distributed 15,000 meals a week to hungry Vermonters.

Brattleboro is the first Vermont town to pilot the new program. Stephanie Bonin is the director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and of Everyone Eats! in Brattleboro. She told The Commons about the program’s “three-pillar” approach: a food distribution system that connects local growers who provide farm fresh ingredients with local restaurants that create delicious takeout meals to feed hungry residents of five southern Vermont towns, free of charge.

Everyone Eats! leverages CARES Act funds—which are federal funds targeted at businesses negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic—to engage local restaurants in making to-go meals for anyone in Brattleboro, Guilford, Vernon, Dummerston, or Putney, Vermont experiencing COVID-related unemployment, underemployment, homelessness, or other challenges. Over 10,000 meals were distributed Monday through Thursday throughout August, with nine Brattleboro restaurants providing a total of 650 meals per day for at least four weeks.

Bonin told NBC Nightly News recently that she ’s talked to restaurant owners “crying over the phone [about] how much this means to them.” She told the Sunday TODAY show, “This is huge for Brattleboro and … for the feeling of community that COVID took away from us.”

The program also boosts the local economy by connecting growers and restaurants that hadn’t worked together before, strengthening the local food system. That’s no coincidence—Vermont has consistently ranked #1 on the national Locavore Index for its commitment to local food. Farms across Vermont are feeling the positive impact of programs like Shift Meals and Everyone Eats! Farms are seeing increased business during a downtime and creating additional partnerships to draw more participants into the local food system. Newport’s Bluffside Farm, according to VT Digger, opened a portion of its land as a community garden, with local residents tending plants donated by area farms.

The urgency of food insecurity has refocused Skinny Pancake’s business model. Co-founder Benjy Adler recently told Seven Days that his business is now geared towards strengthening Vermont’s local food system by continuing Shift Meals, and also with two new initiatives, one aimed at supporting BIPOC growers and another a collaboration with local farms. Meanwhile, VT Digger reports that the State of Vermont is just about ready to launch Everyone Eats! Statewide, with ten Everyone Eats! hubs now launching, expecting to serve over 20,000 meals per week into December.

At a time of social distancing and deep uncertainty, Vermont’s tightly knit local food system has gotten even stronger by focusing on local agriculture to feed neighbors in a crisis.

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