Editor’s Note: Alida Farrell is Local Food Access Coordinator for Green Mountain Farm-to-School. GMFTS is a Newport-based nonprofit whose mission is to restore and strengthen local food systems in the Northeast Kingdom by promoting positive economic and educational relationships among schools, farms, and communities. She is the lead coordinator for Vermont Everyone Eats at GMFTS.

Learn More: As Pandemic Compounds Food Insecurity in Vermont, Locals Step Up to Fight Hunger

Since the onset of the pandemic, the scope of Green Mountain Farm-to-School’s work has grown to address the mounting barriers to food access in our communities. We’ve been leveraging our regional food hub, Green Mountain Farm Direct, to increase food shelves’ local food procurement. GMFTS has also become a community hub for the Vermont Everyone Eats program. As such, we coordinate the distribution of over 1,600 meals per week to those in need throughout the Northeast Kingdom. 

Vermont Everyone Eats Benefits Restaurants, Farmers, and Food-Insecure Community Members

Vermont Everyone Eats is a program that reimburses restaurants for the meals that they create. It ensures that those meals find their way to people negatively impacted by COVID-19 or otherwise experiencing food insecurity. The program has over 134 distribution sites statewide managed by 18 regional partners. To date, it has distributed over 700,000 meals. 

One thing that I find really powerful is that Vermont Everyone Eats benefits everyone involved: meal recipients, restaurants, and farmers. By participating in the program, meal recipients are supporting local restaurants, which have been hit hard by COVID restrictions. Restaurants are required to use at least 10 percent locally sourced ingredients for these meals. This supports our local farmers and keeps money here in Vermont. It’s been so rewarding to serve as a bridge between our participating restaurants and our local farms. 

GMFTS Food Hub Connects Local Restaurants to Local Farmers to Feed People 

We have a great example of connecting restaurants to local farms right here in Newport Center, Vermont, where GMFTS is based. Before she signed on to serve meals for Everyone Eats, Sheryl Brown, owner of Wayne’s Family Restaurant, did not have a system for ordering local ingredients and was concerned about her ability to do so. Fortunately, we have Green Mountain Farm Direct, a regional food hub built into Green Mountain Farm-to-School. The hub provides a variety of local foods including apples, meat, vegetables, grains, eggs, and dairy from more than 30 local farms to customers across Northern Vermont. 

We set up Sheryl as a customer through Farm Direct. Then she was able to find lots of options that would meet — and exceed — the 10 percent-local requirement. Now, 75 percent of the ingredients used in their meals, on average, come from local farms. Out of ten participating restaurants, Wayne’s takes the cake.

Removing the Stigma of Food Assistance as Covid-19 Pushes More People to Need Help

Another thing I find so powerful about this program is that it brings dignity to our charitable food system, which is often steeped in stigma. VT Everyone Eats aims to remove the stigma associated with receiving free meals. It does this by having very broad eligibility requirements and by encouraging a high restaurant-quality standard of meals. Even before the pandemic, the number of people in Vermont experiencing food insecurity was grim. Pre-COVID, 1 in 10 Vermonters struggled to put food on the table for their families. COVID brought that up to 1 in 3 Vermonters.

This means we have a new group of food-insecure people who may have no experience accessing food-assistance programs. We also have a lot of Vermonters who may be really struggling, but are too proud to ask for help.

By telling people that they are supporting their favorite local restaurants and farms by taking a meal, it suddenly removes any shame from the interaction, because meal recipients are now contributing to something truly vital: the future of our local food system.

Join Alida Farrell and other local food-access experts at a Virtual Town Hall March 25 focused on food insecurity and local efforts to mitigate it. Food Access in the Northeast Kingdom brings together people on the front lines and behind the scenes of local organizations supporting food access across Caledonia, Essex and Orleans Counties. This live webinar is geared toward service providers who want to better understand the food safety net in the NEK. 

Learn More: As Pandemic Compounds Food Insecurity in Vermont, Locals Step Up to Fight Hunger

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