This is the first in a series of portraits of some of the restaurants, caterers, growers, social service agencies, and meal recipients who are a part of Upper Valley Everyone Eats. UVEE is the local hub of Vermont Everyone Eats, a Vermont coronavirus relief program that pays Vermont restaurants $10/meal to prepare free, nutritious meals to Vermonters experiencing food insecurity. The program accomplishes three goals: providing a revenue stream to hard-hit local restaurants, providing food to Vermonters in need, and supporting the state’s local agricultural economy, by stipulating that at least 10% of meal ingredients must be sourced locally.
By Cameron Huftalen, Upper Valley Everyone Eats Project Manager
The newest addition to the Upper Valley Everyone Eats (UVEE) program is the Waits River Country Store & Deli. Tucked away in West Topsham, the Waits River Country Store & Deli is run by Heather Paye and has become a mainstay in the small community.
Heather has been running the store and deli for eight years, and over those years several operations have had room to grow. In addition to the store and deli, Heather has a commercial catering business, and in her free time, she bakes bread and tends to her garden.
Her store offers a spot of community and routine for the folks that live nearby. In rural areas like West Topsham, having a spot like Heather’s can help bridge the gap between folks. It helps to make up for the lack of cell phone coverage, which she made a point of joking about, greeting a visitor with “Welcome to the woods!”
For a program like UVEE to succeed in such a rural place takes a strong sense of community and neighbors helping each other. In partnership with local school nurse Carla Horniak, Heather has been able to spread the word around the area and connect with some folks in the community who wanted to take part in the program. These folks now pick meals up weekly from the store and bring them back to their families. Additionally, thanks to her connection in the community, Heather was able to put us in touch with a volunteer who was interested in helping deliver meals from the deli to meal sites – something the program relies on in rural areas.
As is the standard for all meals in the Everyone Eats program, restaurants must source at least 10% of their ingredients from local farms and producers. Heather is excited to work with some great local produce and spoke with me about the benefits of well-grown food. She loves to use ingredients from her own garden when cooking for friends and family, because “you can’t get more local than that!”
Her meals are currently going to families in the Waits River Valley School system. While Vermont passed legislation to continue universal free school meals for the year, there’s still a gap in food access for students and their families over the weekend, or for family members that aren’t attending school. Everyone Eats hopes to help fill that gap, and the meals that Heather makes weekly are a part of that process.
Not only do the meals help alleviate concerns of food insecurity for families, the funding that the program provides Heather for making meals each week helps her to pay her staff members and keep the store up and running. It’s no surprise that the past several years have been hard on small businesses, but Heather and the folks over at the Waits River Country Store and Deli are upbeat and continuing on with their work. Despite the pressures faced by running a small business in a rural area throughout years of a pandemic, they’ve also had some pretty creative developments, including working with Northeast Slopes to provide food to skiers and riders for the past two years.
This program, and many other local initiatives, rely on connection and community in order to run smoothly. When we get to partner with community fixtures like the Waits River Country Store & Deli and caring and committed folks like Heather and Carla, we truly see the program functioning to the most effective extent. Over the past several years we have learned many things through coordinating a regional hub for Vermont Everyone Eats, and perhaps one of the biggest standouts is how it takes true community investment for any program to succeed, especially in states like Vermont. As we go forward to continue to address needs like economic support for small businesses, the vitality of our local farms, and the constant challenges of food insecurity and hunger, we will continue to support and rely on grassroots networks and communities. We are all better when we are looking out for one another and seeing how we can help our neighbors and our community, and we’re so lucky to be working with partners like Heather, Carla, and the folks of West Topsham!