Paying it forward in a hungry world, from Pawlet to Rutland

Paying it forward in a hungry world, from Pawlet to Rutland
Sign at Vermont Farmers Food Center in Rutland: ‘Everyone Welcome.’ (All photos taken by Carey Lynn Braidt)

By Carey Lynn Braidt

It’s a cold day in January 2020, you’re sitting in the parking lot of the grocery store, you just checked the balance of your checking account, you have $50.36 left and it’s four days till you get paid again. You glance at the gas gauge and are grateful it’s closer to full than you thought.

Before you left the house you assessed the cabinets and have a list of what you need to buy to transform those ingredients into four complete meals. With calculator in hand, you head into the store. You don’t shop in the order of the aisles; instead you head to the milk and meat, shopping by the most important needs on your list first. You add it up on the calculator as you go, so you know exactly how much money you have left, grabbing the butcher manager’s special to save an extra dollar, knowing you’ll be cooking it up right away.

Then you zig-zag through the middle, grabbing two boxes of pasta and the cheap tuna. You luck out in the bread aisle because there is a buy-one-get-one-free deal, so you’ll have a few extra dollars to get the kids cereal, too. Not sure if you should even bother walking through the produce section you are delighted that the bananas are on sale for 49 cents a pound, because that will make your child’s school lunch healthier, but you have to weigh them so you know if you can afford 3 or 5 of them.

At the register you watch the cashier’s computer screen nervously, heart racing and praying you calculated it correctly. The final tally is $49.02 and you’re relieved you don’t have to put anything back this time. You grab your few bags and gallon of milk and head to the car.

Fast forward to mid-April 2020. The world has shut down due to a pandemic. For this same individual who was barely living paycheck to paycheck, the gas gauge of the car now sits near empty, there is no money in the bank, there is no pay day in four days. The job is gone, the money is gone and the fear of going anywhere as you could get this sickness called COVID-19 is real . . . and you’re hungry. This is why the Vermont Everyone Eats Program was created, because hunger is all too real.

COVID-19 threw a wrench at all of us. We were faced with unforeseen hits that we were not prepared for as individuals or as a government, but Vermont took a very innovative approach to food relief, local insecurities and economic development. It also tackled these multifaceted problems through a multifaceted solution, the Everyone Eats Program.

It was an out-of-the-box approach and something everyone could feel good about, and they do.

The funding for this program originated out of the CARES Act.

All 14 counties across the state of Vermont are participating and benefiting. At its heart, the program feeds people, yes, but it does so in a way that benefits local farms, food distributors and area restaurants.

The Vermont Everyone Eats Program keeps people working, initiates an economic need for farmers’ products, and keeps restaurants and their staffs making and serving up meals, as well as incorporating a network of local agencies and volunteers. It is a full-circle approach that benefits the economy while stabilizing food insecurities and feeding those in need . . . and there has been a very big need.

In Rutland County alone, there are 100 restaurants participating and 130 distribution sites, including the Vermont Farmers Food Center in downtown Rutland, which offers a drive-thru distribution three times a week. On Wednesdays, 150 to 200 meals served at the food center drive-thru come from Mach’s Market in Pawlet. The meals from Mach’s have really stood out for their generous size and content, as well as the local food sources.

Mach’s Market owner Gib Mach in his apron and Marine Corps face mask preparing meals.

On a Monday morning in February, one other volunteer and I helped the Mach family and staff prepare 160 hearty chicken dinners for the Everyone Eats Program. It doesn’t matter that most of Gib Mach’s face is covered by a Marine Corps fabric face mask; the sparkle in his eyes says it all. He is proud of his staff and what they are doing here, but also modest. Gib made sure I knew “It’s not about Mach’s, it’s about this program,” and it shows in the entire thought process, planning and preparation of the meals they send out the door.

Chef Zach Baker has the job of planning the menu and estimating the quantity of food they prepare, making sure that as much of the meal as possible is locally sourced.

The requirement of the Everyone Eats program is that 10% of each meal must be locally sourced as well as nutritionally balanced, Mach’s easily exceeds those expectations, because its business goal includes a locally sourced motto as well.

I also saw from talking to Gib the overall positive spirit this program has had on the community, in a pay-it-forward sort of way. Laughing Child Farm is a local sweet potato farm that does business with Mach’s regularly, but recently they just donated their potatoes to Mach’s specifically for the Everyone Eats meals.

Volunteer Jean Nardi of Rupert shared that the pandemic encouraged her into retirement a little sooner than she expected and that this has been a great way for her to help the community. She and I filled and packed the food containers alongside Mach’s owner Gib as the kitchen staff cooked and brought us everything we needed. It was a well-organized and impressive operation for sure. Jean is a steady helper here at Mach’s two days a week, and she delivers the meals to the Rutland distribution center each Monday.

Volunteer Jean Nardi packaging meals for the Everyone Eats Program.

When we arrived in Rutland, the signs made the need for this program all too real: “FREE MEALS 4-6 p.m., Everyone Eats, Everyone Welcome.”

The Vermont Farmers Food Center was equally prepared and organized for our arrival. Three of us swiftly unloaded the meals, unpacked them and stacked them in the commercial refrigerators among other boxed meals that had already arrived.

The food center staff said Mach’s meals are very popular among the appreciative meal recipients, and that they are a real example of the high-quality meal the program was hoping to create.

Since its inception in September 2020, the Vermont Farmers Food Center has been Rutland County’s hub of food distribution, adapting to the growing program and working with other organizations for pick-up and distribution, including Smokey House Center, Teen Challenge Vermont and local churches so that people across the county – and not just within the city of Rutland – can get access to these meals. A representative at the site said: “The need for prepared food distribution pre-dates COVID. COVID made us all more aware of it, and this program proves there are solutions to food insecurities that can have a positive impact on economic development.”

After my experience of seeing how the Everyone Eats Program went from restaurant to the real people of Vermont, I realized there was still a missing a piece of the puzzle, so I reached out to Timothy Brooke, farmer and owner of Laughing Child Farm in Pawlet, to get the farmer’s perspective.

Timothy was inspired to donate some of their “sweets.” to the Everyone Eats meals that were made at Mach’s Market recently. Mach’s is a steady customer, and knowing that farming isn’t easy, nor does it have a big profit margin, I had to ask Timothy why he was inspired to just give away so many sweet potatoes.

He explained that their family farm has an “environmental mission and a social mission.” and added that “if it wasn’t for the kindness of neighbors and other farmers we wouldn’t have the farm we have today. At the beginning we used other people’s barns, tractors and land.” It was obvious why Laughing Child Farm was more than willing to donate what they could, because at one time Timothy himself was just a farm hand, raising children, calculating his expenses very carefully until the next payday. He knew firsthand why Vermonters need the Everyone Eats Program.

For more information about the Vermont Everyone Eats Program, visit https://vteveryoneeats.org/

Carey Lynn Braidt is a freelance writer and rural visionary from Rupert, Vermont, you can find more of her work on her website alittlesliceofcountry.com.