In August 2020, the state of Vermont announced Vermont Everyone Eats, a program that would use federal coronavirus relief funds to pay restaurants to make meals for people in need – two groups struggling mightily due to the pandemic. The state needed regions throughout the state to organize their social services agencies and restaurants into “hubs” to carry out this large-scale and time-sensitive creation and delivery of meals. In the Upper Valley, Vital Communities stepped forward as the coordinator for this region. By June 2021, Upper Valley Everyone Eats (UVEE) had overseen the preparation and delivery of more than 100,000 meals to over 45 local food shelves, community dinners, schools, and shelters, paying 10 local restaurants and food producers more than $1 million. The statewide program stipulates that at least 10 percent of the meals’ ingredients be sourced from local farms and food processors, but UVEE’s participating restaurants have averaged a whopping 35 percent, putting about $75,000 towards local sources by late July 2021. The program is slated to wind down over the summer of 2021 and conclude in September.
Global Village Foods of Windsor was one of UVEE’s participating food businesses. The pandemic had hit them hard; specializing in African food and meals for those with food sensitivities, at least two-thirds of GVF’s revenue came from prepared foods sold in deli cases of grocery stores, most of which were closed in the first months of COVID. No more sales of samosas, “which were really our bread and butter – or our dough and filling, as it were,” said Wangene Hall, GVF Marketing Director and daughter of founders Mel and Damaris Hall.
“After COVID, no one knew what was going to be happening, so it’s like one day you have a business, and the next day you don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” said Damaris.
UVEE allowed them to stabilize their business and even expand their staff to 10, including four Halls. It also pushed them to find more local sources of ingredients. During summer they easily exceeded the requirement of 10 percent local ingredients, but to meet that quota in winter meant building new relationships with local farmers. They bought and stored root vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes and they started buying all their beef from a local farmer. This felt good, said Wangene. “For us it’s so important both to have the amazing flavor and freshness and healthfulness of local food but also to support our local agricultural system.” Said Damaris, “We had to do some extra work but it was worth it.”
“Vital Communities did a heck of a job in coordinating all these centers to get the food out to the people,” she added.
Still more, UVEE allowed them to further deepen their relationship with their home community. Before COVID, they were donating food to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for families of pediatric patients and others, and to the Upper Valley Haven and LISTEN Services. “We always wanted to see how we could give back to the community that has given so much to us,” said Damaris.
“When UVEE came, it was a humbling experience,” she said. “You’re getting produce from local farmers and you’re feeding people who actually need food. It was a very satisfying experience for me. We all need nourishment, and with UVEE, you get to take care of people’s most basic needs of all. Especially knowing there are people who may not have access to really good food, and they can have one meal that they can say, this was prepared by someone who cares.”
The experience made them think differently about the e-commerce arm of GVF they had begun developing just as the pandemic began. Rather than ship frozen meals to a national clientele, they want to focus on online retail that serves the Upper Valley. “It means a smaller carbon footprint and that we’re sticking to our mission of serving our local community as we celebrate global flavor,” Wangene said.