The Everyone Eats program to help feed hungry Vermonters resumed this week, thanks to a $1.6 million infusion from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
The program’s CARES Act funding expired Dec. 31, halting a program that last year provided over 530,000 meals to Vermonters struggling to obtain enough food. That meant a $5.3 million injection for local restaurants that prepared the meals, and almost $500,000 to farms and food producers who supplied the raw materials.
While the $1.6 million will cover the program’s operation for just three weeks, starting Jan. 18, organizers are looking for other sources of money. Statewide coordinator Jean Hamilton said she hopes to secure funding that carries Everyone Eats at least through the Vermont Covid-19 state of emergency.
“We really are working under the hope that this is bridge funding that gives us time to work with state lawmakers and to identify longer-term funding,” she told VTDigger. “It’s challenging to fund through philanthropy because of the large price tag.”
The cost comes from paying restaurants $10 a meal, Hamilton said, since the program not only feeds the hungry, but supports the hard-hit restaurant industry. Restaurants are required to obtain at least 10% of the program’s food from Vermont farms.
An impact report next week will aim to show why Everyone Eats has been so compelling, and why its successes can be replicated elsewhere.
Still, the stop-and-go has been hard, not just for those running the program, but for Vermonters facing “the absolute anxiety that comes with the thought of not knowing what you’re going to eat next week,” Hamilton said. “That was something that was present and persistent at the end of the year.”
While Hamilton has 20 years of professional experience in Vermont’s food systems — from working at restaurants to farms and food security programs — emergency feeding is something new. It was hard to reply to those asking how to get by and what they would eat when the program came to an end, she said.
The pandemic has clearly shown the need for hunger-relief programs, as more Vermonters struggle to afford healthy food for themselves and their families.
For some, this means turning to cheaper, less nutritional food. Others may limit their food costs by skipping meals. According to recent surveys by UVM, about one in three Vermonters now faces food insecurity.
“That’s not the occasional neighbor,” Hamilton said. “That’s a lot of neighbors.”
And 50% of food-insecure households reported eating fewer fruits and vegetables since the pandemic began last March.
“So there could be other impacts on reduced diet quality in terms of health outcomes that aren’t just about having enough food, but also having good-quality food,” UVM professor Meredith Niles told the Vermont Senate Committee on Agriculture.
Niles said 30% of Vermont households have faced food insecurity since the pandemic began. About a third of those people hadn’t been in that position before.
UVM surveys indicate food insecurity rates are higher for families with children — 42% of those households, compared to 30% of the general population. The rate of food insecurity was also high among people who have lost a job, or furloughed, or had their hours reduced.
Households with income of less than $50,000 a year and people without a college education are also more likely than average to be food insecure.
Some people said they’re maxing out credit cards or going into debt to afford food. Niles said that may cause a “silent financial impact that we may not even be seeing the full effect of yet.”
But the survey also found that Vermonters are turning to food assistance programs in increasing numbers, such as 3Squares Vermont, or SNAP, and school meals, among others.
“We’re going to be spending a lot of time with the committee on food security,” said Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, “to make sure we get this right.”
A lot is resting on that, such as one UVM student who was able to obtain just enough food “that they managed to pass their classes” and graduate, Hamilton said.
“When we ask for help and ask for a meal, we’re helping our whole community because we’re helping to put these dollars back in the local economy,” Hamilton said. “It’s still a really good time to check in on your neighbors.”
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