'Everyone Eats' program that provided Vermonters with to-go meals will end this spring
Every Wednesday afternoon, Dan Molind fills a pick up truck with food from Enough Ministries in Barre, where he serves as pastor.
He stops off at several hotels and homeless encampments in the region to deliver hundreds of prepared meals to families who have limited ways to cook for themselves or might not be able to get to a grocery store. The food is made by local restaurants, which are paid $10 a meal from federal and state dollars through a program called Everyone Eats.
The program connecting Vermont restaurants with charitable food providers started in August of 2020. Before that, church members in Barre were cooking thousands of meals to distribute themselves.
“So Everyone Eats was a really nice sort of relief,” Molind said. “Because we had a lot of people working very hard in those early days of the pandemic to help feed people who didn't have other food options.”
His church, with support from others in the area, along with the Salvation Army in Barre, provides free take-out breakfasts every day, along with food delivery.
“We've done, out of Everyone Eats, about 45,000 meals since it started,” Molind said.
“Everyone Eats was kind of like a foundational thing. So now we have to fill in the cracks again and figure out, okay, now what?"Pastor Leigh McCaffrey, Barre Congregational Church.
After this March though, the program will end, along with other emergency food and housing assistance programs that have helped thousands of Vermont families pay for utilities and rent and provided extra money for groceries during the pandemic.
It's stopping now, despite record levels of food insecurity, because funding has dried up. State lawmakers set aside $1.3 million for Everyone Eats this summer to meet a requirement that the state match 10% of dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
“We’ve stretched the funding allocated by the legislature to keep the program going through the end of March, so we can help Vermonters go through the most difficult months of the year,” said Amanda Witman, who coordinates the program with Southeastern Vermont Community Action.
“Federal support for pandemic recovery programs is winding down,” she added.
As these programs sunset, dozens of organizations that have provided meals across the state will have to recalibrate.
“Everyone Eats was kind of like a foundational thing,” said Pastor Leigh McCaffrey, from Barre Congregational Church, who works closely with Enough Ministries. “Now we have to fill in the cracks again and figure out, okay, now what?”
A big reason Everyone Eats has been so popular is because it provided a form of food assistance that didn’t really exist before.
“We realized that prepared meals is a huge help for people,” said Sue Minter, the executive director of Capstone Community Action, which helped coordinate the program in central Vermont.
Many of the people they serve don’t have access to a kitchen or cooking supplies. They might not be able to chop vegetables themselves or don’t have time to prepare a meal.
"One guy put a freezer in his garage for people in his little neighborhood in Eden."Sue Minter, Capstone Community Action
The program has also spread to-go meals to community health centers, hospitals, schools and at least one general store across the state.
“One guy put a freezer in his garage for people in his little neighborhood in Eden,” Minter said.
That’s helped food reach more families than a typical food shelf might, which are often open for just a few hours a week, said Cameron Huftalen, who helps coordinate meal sites at several schools through Vital Communities in White River Junction.
“If schools are already running backpack programs for the weekend, it’s a pretty easy way to fold in extra support for those families and those students,” they said.
More from Vermont Public: What to know about cuts to extra federal food assistance
Going forward, organizers are looking for ways to pay for a similar model of food distribution outside of FEMA.
Minter is exploring the idea of a program that views food as medicine, building off existing partnerships.
“There may be USDA-related or even Medicare or Medicaid-related funding," she said. "We're exploring all of it with our community health centers."
Others like McCaffrey, from Barre Congregational Church, think the state will step in with another food assistance program. But there's been no indication of any plan in the works thus far.
"We haven't heard from the state what their proposal is," McCaffrey said.
"I'm in the hope business."
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.