Shortly after closing the doors of The Skinny Pancake restaurants as the pandemic hit in March, the Burlington-based restaurant chain launched a program to offer free meals to people in need, including some in the Upper Valley.
“It’s scary to think about,” said Michael Cyr, Skinny Pancake’s director of marketing. “There really is no social safety net for restaurant workers.”
While the initial impetus of the project, which became known as Shiftmeals, was to care for the restaurant’s own employees who were out of work, Cyr said the effort soon grew to include other restaurant workers, musicians, gig workers and others affected by COVID-19.
Shiftmeals now is being used as a model for a statewide project called Everyone Eats!
The Vermont Legislature allocated $5 million of federal CARES Act money to the program and a task force is now at work to determine how to best get the money to restaurants so they can get meals to people in need, generate some business and purchase food from local growers.
The project launched amid the largest spike in hunger and food insecurity the state has seen since the height of the Great Recession in Vermont, said Anore Horton, executive director of the nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont. Food insecurity in Vermont has increased about 46 percent since March and it’s up more than 60 percent for children, Horton said.
“We have to throw everything we have at this problem,” she said.
Those efforts include making sure those who qualify know how to access federal food programs known as 3SquaresVT and SNAP, as well as school meal programs, summer meal programs, child care meals, the federal WIC program, and Meals on Wheels, she said.
But, she said, these programs “aren’t enough” to meet the need. Some people make just a little too much money to qualify and the benefits may not be sufficient to meet people’s nutritional needs, she said. This gap is where the charitable food system and other efforts such as Everyone Eats! come in, she said.
During the pandemic, the Vermont Foodbank has seen between a 40 percent and 300 percent increase in demand for food assistance for Vermonters depending on the community, said Andrea Solazzo, the Foodbank’s agriculture and community outreach manager who has been managing the Shiftmeals project for the Foodbank since it began in early April.
“We’re just really trying to be agile to meet the needs around COVID (by) increasing food access in kind of more inventive ways,” Solazzo said in a phone interview.
As part of these efforts, the Foodbank has contracted with The Skinny Pancake to produce 30,000 meals at a rate of $6 per meal from early April through the end of August, Solazzo said. The program has so far produced nearly 60,000 meals in total with additional support from individual donors, the Vermont Community Foundation and the High Meadows Fund, said Cyr.
At the end of March when it had to close its restaurants, Skinny Pancake had recently opened a new production kitchen in Winooski, Cyr said. It was able to use that to create meals to distribute through the chain’s restaurants in Burlington, Waitsfield, Montpelier and Quechee.
The content of the meals varies depending on the location, Solazzo said. Working with a dietetic student at the University of Vermont, Solazzo said they developed well-balanced meals including a protein, a vegetable and a carbohydrate. They also made the meals “culturally responsive.” For new Americans in the Burlington area, menus have included coconut chicken curry and chana masala, while meals for seniors in Sheldon, Vt., have included chicken and biscuits and meatloaf, she said.
Shiftmeals has distributed 2,000 meals from the Quechee restaurant, as well as another 1,000 through Listen Community Services in White River Junction which was sending meals to people without permanent housing staying at the Comfort Inn, said Jean Hamilton, Shiftmeals’ project director. Popular meals in Quechee have included the curry and meatloaf, as well as mac and cheese and beef chili, she said.
In Quechee, “We have served many different kinds of families, from those who are newly unemployed to folks who are homebound due to being elderly and/or otherwise vulnerable to COVID-19,” Hamilton said via email.
Skinny Pancake has reopened all of its restaurants except for its Hanover location, which has permanently closed, Cyr said. The Quechee location is open for takeout and outdoor dining, according to the restaurant’s website.
Southeastern Vermont Community Action, which serves Windham and Windsor counties, is the fiscal administrator for the statewide Everyone Eats! A task force has been meeting to lay out the process for restaurants to apply to participate, said Carolyn Sweet, SEVCA’s director of planning and development. The project aims to deliver 15,000 meals per week from “hubs” based in each county starting in mid-August and running through the end of the year. Restaurants will receive $10 per meal and be required to purchase a certain percentage of ingredients from local producers.
Upper Valley restaurant owners said they welcome creative opportunities such as Everyone Eats! to help keep their businesses afloat during difficult times.
Corinna Dodson, who owns The Barnard Inn Restaurant & Max’s Tavern, said she heard about the Everyone Eats! project from Vital Communities and is looking forward to learning more about it. “We’re open to ideas,” she said.
Early on in the pandemic, some people purchased $1,000 gift cards from Dodson’s business to go toward food for families in need or exhausted health care workers, so the basic concept behind Everyone Eats! is familiar, she said. But the gift cards didn’t make a big dent in the restaurant’s pandemic-related losses. The Barnard restaurant lost 90 percent of its business, Dodson said, including at least $500,000 just due to weddings this summer being postponed. The restaurant is offering takeout with some outdoor seating, but has opted not to do table service indoors or outdoors due to concerns for the safety of her staff.
“We’re literally playing with Band-Aids right now,” Dodson said about the business’ efforts to stay afloat.
Dodson said she’ll look at the information about Everyone Eats! once it’s available, but may be constrained due to having fewer staff members than she usually does in an effort to keep costs to a minimum. They are open just Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.
“We struggle every day,” she said.
Brandon Fox, who runs Maple Street Catering and Big Fatty’s BBQ in White River Junction, said he’d be interested in the Everyone Eats! program as a way to bring back staff he’s had to furlough who are looking at losing the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits this week. Big Fatty’s is open for delivery and takeout, but demand for catering is way below what it normally is this time of year, Fox said.
“We’d have to look and see exactly how much everything would be,” he said of Everyone Eats!
Sweet said she’s hopeful that additional funding will be found to extend the Everyone Eats! program beyond the end of the year to continue to support restaurants, downtown businesses, people in need, and farmers and food suppliers.
“This is one tool in the tool kit that buys restaurants some time before there’s a greater level of restaurant relief,” Sweet said. And “for people, what a great opportunity to have a delicious meal.”
Grow team go!
Another facet of Shiftmeals that is not part of the statewide Everyone Eats! project is Skinny Pancake’s partnership with farms to get volunteers — mostly former restaurant workers and others displaced due to the pandemic — onto land to work in exchange for a share of the food produced.
Through June 21, Skinny Pancake paid 40 workers to kickstart six gardens around the state through partnerships with farms affected by COVID-19, said Sammy LeVine, who manages the grow teams. Since then, the project has asked that volunteers commit two to eight hours per week to the effort in exchange for a share of the garden’s bounty. In the Upper Valley, one such project is ongoing at Broad Acres Farm in Vershire.
“The model is to empower folks to grow their own food,” said LeVine, who worked as a restaurant server in Burlington until the pandemic. It also has side benefits for people’s mental and physical health, as well as for community building, she added.
The grow team part of the Shiftmeals project also is looking to expand to new sites, LeVine said. Though it might be too late to plant for this year, she said volunteers could help get a new garden site cover cropped in preparation for planting next spring.
Asking people to take part in producing their own food is another way of getting at the same problem The Skinny Pancake sought to address by food giving prepared meals to those in need, LeVine said.
You can “give a man a fish or teach him to fish,” she said.
To sign up to receive a meal at the Quechee site on Fridays visit: https://shiftmeals.org/location-quechee/.