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Longstanding free Thanksgiving dinner lives on, despite closure of Burlington restaurant

A black and white illustration showing an overhead view of a Thanksgiving dinner, with drawings of a turkey, pie, corn, carrots and ham.
Mellok
/
iStock
While the Church Street restaurant Sweetwaters closed earlier this year, the building's new tenant, The Farmhouse Group, is stepping in to provide 1,000 free Thanksgiving dinners with all the fixings to anyone who could use one.

For decades, Sweetwaters American Bistro in Burlington was a Thanksgiving staple, offering a place for hundreds of Vermonters to sit down and enjoy a free turkey dinner.

But the Church Street restaurant closed this year when the owner retired. The building's new tenant, The Farmhouse Group, is stepping in to provide 1,000 free Thanksgiving dinners with all the fixings to anyone who could use one. Four hundred of those meals are being distributed through Vermont Everyone Eats, a state program for residents in need of food assistance.

Michael Nedell is cofounder of the Burlington-based food app company Localvore, which will help coordinate the Everyone Eats dinner giveaway on Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Contois Auditorium in Burlington.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch recently spoke with Nedell about the meal-giveaway event. Their conversation below has been condensed for clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: Well, to start off, this will look a little bit different from Sweetwaters' dinners in the past. How is this year's event going to work?

Michael Nedell: Well, first of all, this is the day before Thanksgiving. So these meals are prepared to be taken home, or wherever you can go. And then eaten the next day.

And The Farmhouse Group is also distributing meals to the Salvation Army and a couple of other nonprofits this year. Taken together, can you describe how important this annual Thanksgiving dinner is for the local community and for people who might not have access to a hot meal as often as they should?

Oh, I went to Sweetwaters when I first arrived in Burlington and didn't have many resources myself. I'm very familiar with how important it is. That was one of the most fantastic meals of my life back then.

Now, I believe the program that Everyone Everyone eats is doing — they've provided over 3 million meals so far in the past two years — what they're doing to include restaurants and prepared meals in the food insecurity equation is highly important. And we're really proud to be part of that.

These meals will go to help so many people. You know, there's not only the 400 meals from The Farmhouse Group, but there's 200 vegan meals as well from a company called Sweet Alchemy.

"[T]he program that Everyone Everyone eats is doing — they've provided over 3 million meals so far in the past two years — what they're doing to include restaurants and prepared meals in the food insecurity equation is highly important. And we're really proud to be part of that."
Mike Nedell, Localvore cofounder

Being somebody who followed a vegan diet for almost 25 years, I love hearing that!

And the Intervale Center is the main impetus who puts these events together. They do distribution events for the Everyone Eats program three times a week.

Our app allows the food-insecure to qualify, and then go to a restaurant and get a meal from the restaurant using the app as a digital voucher system. So we're able to put about 2,000 meals a day into the mouths of Vermonters across the state. That's the part that we do. We've been working with Jed from the Farmhouse for four years, so we're a natural bridge to the distribution.

And then when you say, "Jed," that's Jed Davis.

Right, Jed Davis from The Farmhouse Group. Correct.

We're seeing high inflation this year. Food banks across Vermont are reporting fewer donations. Can you provide a picture of food insecurity across the state right now as we continue to come out of the pandemic? What are people going through relative to past years?

I do know that there are about 23,000 people signed up for this program across the state. We have new people every day. It looks like 10 new people signed up for this today.

I don't think this problem is going away very soon. I'm not too sure, you know, the economic reasons behind it. But whatever they may be, I do hope that they change because this problem has been increasing since we've been involved with it.

More from Vermont Public: Two in five Vermonters are facing food insecurity, yet food donations are down 20% since 2019

And Michael, one of the cool things about the Sweetwaters dinner in the past and also before the pandemic: guests could sit down enjoy the meal in person. And this year, as you mentioned, all the meals will be takeout. We've also seen reporting that other organizations across Vermont, they're increasingly trading that sit-down Thanksgiving meal for takeout. What are some of the challenges with providing a sit-down option? And does the community lose something when that goes away?

Well, I would hope that they don't. But there is something about sitting around a table or sitting in a room full of other people eating together that I think is the basis of community, that's the basis of social life activity that often revolves around food.

But being able to take a meal and enjoy it with the closest of family is important as well. And I think in these years, especially this, you know, the pandemic still not completely gone. People being able to gather with their loved ones is very important.

Is there anything listeners can do to support Vermonters facing food insecurity whether it's around the holidays or really, you know, during any time of the year?

Well, the Vermont Everyone Eats program is run by SEVCA, which is the Southeastern Vermont Community Action Group, and they do take donations. So anyone who wants to donate to that program can go to sevca.org and donate to that program.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.
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