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Restaurants, food producers hope for extension of Vermont meals program

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/5/2020 7:19:28 PM
Modified: 12/5/2020 7:19:26 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Upper Valley participants are hoping for an extension to a Vermont program that pumps money into local restaurants, farms and food suppliers while making meals for people in need.

The Upper Valley Everyone Eats program, funded by federal CARES Act money and run through a collaboration of area nonprofits, eateries and food producers, began in September and is on track to produce more than 40,000 meals by the end of the year.

“We are putting out a lot of meals,” Lauren Griswold, the Upper Valley Everyone Eats coordinator who works out of Vital Communities, said in a recording of an online panel discussion about the program last month.

Statewide, the program has $6 million in federal money to spend in producing these to-go meals through the end of the year, said Steve Geller, executive director of Southeastern Vermont Community Action, which serves as fiscal administrator for the statewide project. It includes 18 regional partners across the state providing about 30,000 meals a week to people through 130 distribution sites.

Participating restaurants, including seven in the Upper Valley, receive $10 per meal and are required to purchase at least 10% of their ingredients from local producers. Upper Valley meals then go to people in need through area food shelves; the Listen Community Center’s takeout community dinners; hotels that are hosting people without permanent housing; at least one senior center; the Windsor VeggieVanGo location; and schools.

“It’s been a really cool project,” Griswold said.

During the virtual discussion, Griswold showed a video of an elderly resident of Woodstock’s Safford Commons, an affordable housing development owned by the nonprofit Twin Pines Housing, expressing her gratitude for the meals she’s been getting from Piecemeal Pies in White River Junction.

“People in Safford Commons are just absolutely loving these pies, and we look forward to it very much,” she said in the video.

Restaurant owners also said they’re grateful for the program, which has helped them keep people employed in spite of the pandemic-related reductions in their business.

“It’s been a great experience,” said Brandon Fox, who owns Maple Street Catering and Big Fatty’s BBQ in White River Junction, which has been producing 1,000 meals per week from the start. Recent meals have include red flannel hash with maple ham from Black River Produce and, on the day of the recording, chicken fajitas were on the menu.

Fox said the program has helped him keep three or four staff members busy despite having fewer events to cater at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth College. Without Everyone Eats this winter, he might have to reduce his staff to just one person.

“I’m hoping this will go for a few more months,” he said.

The program also has helped Listen Community Services to continue its community dinners as a takeout option without having to hire staff to cook the meals, which in non-COVID-19 times were largely prepared by volunteers, said Larry Lowndes, Listen’s community meals manager. Hiring additional food service workers would require diverting money from the nonprofit’s other programs, he said.

He also said he has been impressed with the quality of the meals the restaurants have produced, and the people he serves have also been grateful.

“It’s just been all around a hit,” he said.

It is often the children of the families staying at the Hartford Comfort Inn who call down to see whether dinner has been delivered, said Gayle Ottmann, the inn’s sales manager.

Between the Comfort Inn and the Super 8, which are both owned by the Hanover-based Northmac Inc., the company is now hosting about 120 families that do not have permanent housing, Ottmann said in the recording. This is new for the hotels, which in normal times host travelers and sports teams. Now, they are getting referrals from the 211 program, as well as from the Upper Valley Haven, Listen and even some veterans programs, she said.

The guests tell her “how much they appreciate having the dinners brought in,” Ottmann said.

The program does have room for improvement.

Though Everyone Eats has helped Niko Horster, owner of Shire Beef cattle farm in Vershire, with cash flow, it has not come close to replacing the sales volume the meatmaker lost this year. Through purchases from program participants Windsor-based Global Village Cuisine and Vershire-based Moon and Stars, Horster said he’s brought in about $2,500 to $3,000, but that’s a far cry from the $50,000 to $60,000 he usually takes in from accounts with Skinny Pancake — which closed its Hanover restaurant earlier this year — and Worthy Burger in South Royalton.

Horster said he thought the 10% requirement for local purchases for restaurants in the Everyone Eats program is “too low a barrier.” Restaurant owners on the call agreed. Justin Barrett at Piecemeal Pies and Mel Hall at Global Village Cuisine said they thought they could hit 20-25% without much trouble, should the program continue.

In order to continue the program, organizers would have to find some money. Griswold, in a follow-up email last week, noted that the program is expensive. At $10 per meal, just the 40,000 meals in the Upper Valley will have cost $400,000. She described it as a “a uniquely large and fast budget, funded by the uniquely large and fast CARES Act.”

The Everyone Eats program has caught the attention of people focused on food issues outside of Vermont. The New Hampshire Food Alliance included Griswold in a recent panel discussion about restaurants and COVID-19 relief. Erin Hale, a coordinator for the alliance, said of Everyone Eats in an email last week: “If new pandemic funds become available, we’d love to see some of those funds go to a similar program in New Hampshire.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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