A program developed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that feeds hungry Vermonters and supports local restaurants has been extended as the pandemic lingers.
The Vermont Everyone Eats Program, which started in August 2020, has achieved nearly all of its goals, according to Jean Hamilton, the southeast coordinator for the program. It has brought much needed funds to the restaurant industry, fed thousands of food-insecure Vermonters, and empowered local farms by providing a buyer for their produce.
The program hit the one million meals served mark in April, according to a press release from Gov. Phil Scott’s office.
However, as people return to work, the Everyone Eats Program has been able to continue to support businesses and feed the hungry, due to many different forms of funding.
Hamilton said the funding for the program is continuing until the end of the year, the main reason it has been extended into December.
“The program was initially authorized with a $5 million dollar allocation from the Coronavirus Relief Fund,” Hamilton said. “Since then, the program has been entirely paid for by FEMA reimbursement because this program is a suite of services that the state has pulled together as part of the crisis response, the food assistance response for the pandemic.”
Hamilton said she believes the federal money will keep coming in.
“We anticipate that FEMA will continue to reimburse because the conditions of the pandemic and crisis are continuing to be in place through the end of the year,” she said.
But even after the money runs out, the program will continue in many ways.
“There’s a lot that will be carried forward intuitively and by default because of networks and connections that have been made between the farms and restaurant partnerships,” Hamilton said. “Similarly, many of the restaurants are in direct relationships with community partners, actually delivering their meals to a food shelf or community organization each week. These relationships won’t end once the funding runs out.”
The pandemic has only strengthened the resolve of people who work with the hungry, Hamilton said.
“We always have too much hunger in our state and in our country,” she said. “I don’t think anyone who works with hunger wants to go back to the pre-pandemic normal of hunger, because it's appalling.”
Bliss Bee, a restaurant with locations in Williston and South Burlington, participates in the program. Noah Palker, a line cook there, said that while Everyone Eats has benefited the restaurant, one downside of the program is that because the meals are free, employees often aren’t tipped. However, Palker said this was not an issue for him.
“It's been alright, just knowing and having the satisfaction that hungry people are getting food, and we are getting paid for it regardless so I feel good making the orders,” he said.
Another aspect of the program is that at least 10% of the food in each meal has to be locally sourced, which supports Vermont farms as well as restaurants. Palker also said this does not put difficulty on making the meals, and that they are not different from the rest of the menu.
“The meals are pretty common items on the menu that everyone can enjoy,” he said. “It’s great that the meals are locally sourced. Everyone wins: farmers are making money off of their products, we’re making money off of flipping their products and feeding hungry people,” he said.
Editor's Note: Max Dodson is a student at the University of Vermont and a reporter for the Community News Service, a student-powered partnership with community newspapers.