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State Hopes Brattleboro Food Program Can Help Restaurants Across Vermont

Howard Weiss-Tisman
The Porch Cafe co-owner Gretchen Hardy prepares local vegetables for meals that will be served in the Everyone Eats program. Hardy's restaurant prepares 300 meals a week and is paid with COVID relief money.

In the early days of the pandemic, the Vermont National Guard gave out food to people who lined up for hours to get the assistance.

At first, a lot of the food packages were MREs, ready to eat meals that are usually made for soldiers in combat.

But what if the money that paid for the program could instead be given to local restaurants and farmers, to feed people in the community who are hurting due to the coronavirus?

More from VPR: 'Boots On The Ground': National Guard Deploys MREs To Vermonters

That’s what’s happening in Brattleboro, and the state hopes this model can be replicated across Vermont.

Just like every other restaurant in Vermont, The Porch Café in Brattleboro took a hit when the coronavirus wiped out indoor dining.

Restaurant co-owner Gretchen Hardy said the real hurt came when her summer catering business came to crashing halt.

“We went from doing 40 to 50 weddings a year to now, this year, we’re doing 10,” Hardy said. “So that was really hard.”

Hardy said it’s taken creativity, and flexibility to keep her doors open.

When the pandemic hit, her restaurant stepped up its to-go service and started heat-to-serve dinner delivery.

More from VPR: Brattleboro Closes Some Street Parking To Help Restaurants Through The Pandemic

So when she heard about a new program that gives COVID relief money to restaurants to prepare meals that are given out for free, Hardy was onboard.

“It’s a huge financial bump,” Hardy said. “It’s great. It keeps everyone employed. It keeps us focused, you know, it gives us another kind of creative outlet. And then it also brings in revenue so that we can pay bills, and keep people on. And that’s the most important thing for me. We just want to keep our staff on. That’s it.”

"It's a huge financial bump. It's great it keeps everyone employed. It keeps us focused.....And then it also brings in revenue that we can pay bills, and keep people on. And that's the most important thing for me. You know, we just want to keep our staff on, that's it." - Gretchen Hardy, co-owner of The Porch Cafe

The program is called Everyone Eats,and Hardy’s restaurant now prepares 300 meals a week, which go directly to local motels to feed people there who are experiencing homelessness.

The restaurant gets $10 a meal, and so, while the program is going, that means Hardy can count on an extra $3,000 a week.

At least 10% of the money she gets has to be spent at local farms, so farmers, who have also been hit by the pandemic, are benefitting too.

More from VPR: Poll: Vermonters 'Concerned' As Small Businesses Grapple With Pandemic

There are eight other restaurants in Brattleboro taking part in Everyone Eats, and work is already underway to try to get the program set up in other towns around the state.

Lawmakers carved out $5 million from the federal COVID relief package to support the program.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Packaged containers of pasta with meat sauce and vegetables are given out during a recent pickup for the Everyone Eats program. People can choose from vegetarian, gluten-free and omnivore options, and can take home food for as many people as live in their household.

Gary Holloway is with the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. He hopes to see 10-to-15 more hubs set up before the federal money runs out at the end of the year.

He says if everything works out, Everyone Eats will provide up to 15,000 meals per week across the state.

More from Vermont Edition: How One Chef Is Providing For Her Community During COVID-19

“So this is where it’s kind of a triple-win situation, where we’re able to benefit restaurants who’ve been impacted by COVID, benefit farmers and local producers who’ve been impacted,” Holloway said. “And also, you know, ultimately benefit those who are experiencing food insecurity.”

After the food is cooked in one of Brattleboro's restaurants, it’s packaged up and then delivered to a drop-off spot downtown.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Luca Feusi, in foreground, hands out food to cars that are lined up in Brattleboro.

People start lining up just before 4 p.m.

There are no questions asked to the people picking up food. They choose between vegetarian, omnivore, and gluten-free options, and are allowed to take home food for as many people as they have in their household.

More from VPR: 'My Family Needs These Meals': How One Northeast Kingdom Family Is Making It Through

Volunteers run back and forth between the cars, taking the orders and then packing up containers in plastic bags.

Luca Feusi has been coming out to volunteer. She’s eleven.

“I like the thought of taking a worry off of someone’s mind, of food,” Feusi said. “So that they can still feed their families. Or even if they don’t have to worry about that, just giving it out just makes me feel good, like I’ve been helping.”

"This program is for anyone negatively affected by COVID. And the emotional impacts that COVID is having are just as large as the financial." - Stephanie Bonin, Downtown Brattleboro Alliance

When Tara Davis first heard about the program, she wasn’t sure her family would qualify.

Davis lost her job substitute teaching, but her husband’s still working and she says they have no problem keeping food on the table.

But she’s home fulltime now with her three kids. And if picking up a free meal means one less night of cooking, she’ll take it.

“It’s more of a sanity saver to be honest with you. And it’s for anyone who’s been impacted and not just financially, or food-wise specifically. But just emotionally and otherwise," Davis said.

“There’s a reason why we named it Everyone Eats,” said Stephanie Bonin, director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and the lead organizer for the project. “This program is for anyone negatively affected by COVID. And the emotional impacts that COVID is having are just as large as the financial.”

Bonin used to own a restaurant in Brattleboro, and she knows what it takes to feed large groups.

More from VPR: 'Terrified About Money': Poll Shows Most Vermonters' Finances Affected By COVID

Though she admits it feels like catering a large wedding of 650 people, four days in a row, and it gets tiring.

She’s keeping notes to share with the state

“One of the things that the Brattleboro project has shown, is that this is absolutely making a huge, enormous impact on the restaurants,” Bonin said. “And maybe the big lesson learned is that you can do it. I think in the beginning people felt like this was too enormous a task, to prop up this program in such a short period of time, and say that we’re going to distribute 650 meals. But I say: ‘You can do it.’”

The Agency of Commerce and Community Development has hired a director for the statewide program, and applications are coming in for future Everyone Eats programs around Vermont.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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