Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont volunteer, Jacob Houston, loads the van for drop off at the Orange County Parent Child Center.

VBSR members BCBSVT, Capstone, partner: Food Pilot Works in Collaboration to Support Families

A new food pilot was born in April as an offshoot of the highly successful Everyone Eats Vermont project. This idea came from Capstone Executive Director Sue Minter’s goal to expand mobility to Vermonters through greater transportation and food access.

By decentralizing the food shelf delivery system and providing meals in concert with child support services, Capstone is responding to what people need to be successful parents, and easy access to healthy meals rose to the top of the list. “The Everyone Eats project has been wildly successful in a time when small businesses and Vermonters are struggling, and the Orange County Parent Child Food Pilot is the next step toward meeting people where they are,” says Casey Engels, Everyone Eats Program Manager and Special Projects with Capstone Community Action. The Central Vermont hub is working with ten restaurants to move 5,000 meals a week to Vermonters through June 30. As it ends, the Orange County Parent Child Center Food Pilot may be able to extend the concept while heading in a slightly different direction.

“We have taken the concept of Everyone Eats and maximized it to reach families served by the Orange County Parent Child Center in this pilot,” said Eloise Reid, Food Security Specialist of Capstone. “This pilot is truly a collaboration. It’s inspiring to see what can happen when we take a seed of an idea and find community solutions to weave it together.”

All of the early signs point to success with this new model.

Each week, 130 meals will be cooked, packaged and frozen by the Community Kitchen Academy and added to boxes of fresh produce and nutritious shelf stable food from the Vermont Food Bank. The boxes are then assembled at Capstone Community Action in Barre and loaded into cars of employee volunteers from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont. The Blue Cross employees drive the food to the Orange County Parent Child Center in Tunbridge, where it is distributed to families served by the center throughout the week.

In the first week of the pilot, 70 meals were distributed. This doubled the number of families who have been served through the center as a monthly VeggieVanGo produce distribution site through a partnership with the Vermont Foodbank. Those distribution systems in place made the Orange County Parent Child Center a natural fit for the pilot.

The center is reaching families for the pilot through their home visiting programs and Children’s Integrated Services, as well as through social media and word of mouth. “We have noticed since the beginning of COVID families are struggling—not just the “high risk” folks—lots of families,” says Mary Ellen Otis, who has been the Orange County Parent Child Center’s Executive Director for 20 years. “Right now, we are at 50% enrollment in our early education center because one parent in a family isn’t working due to virtual schooling or because they lost their job. Not working creates incredible stress on the family. Even families floating along as middle income a year ago have been severely impacted.”

“We make it a point to not make our families jump through hoops to get the support they need. If you can use the support we have to offer, take it,” says Otis, conveying the deep care for her community in her matter-of-fact approach to leadership. A way the center is leveling the playing field for families is by providing universal meals in their child care program. The center serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack to every single child regardless of income, which Otis believes is an important piece to ensuring that every child has access to healthy food despite what their family’s circumstance might be that particular month.

“I don’t think anybody thought a year ago that we would be in this place. We all thought it would be temporary,” says Otis. The food pilot steps into the void created by the economic upheaval slamming so many households across Vermont this spring.

John Sayles, the CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, believes that the pilot will help to combat some of the challenges facing Vermont families. “I don’t know a parent who doesn’t want their child to thrive. Yet Vermont parents trying their hardest still encounter barriers, and even small ones add up and wear you down. Being able to count on some extra nourishing food when picking your child up can feel like a miracle. The Vermont Foodbank is thrilled to partner with Capstone in lifting families up, so that all our children can thrive.”

By anyone’s measure this has been a challenging year. As people stay closer to home, connecting families with support can be difficult.

“The goal is to meet people where they are. Families are already coming through the doors at the Orange County Parent Child Center, so it’s a relatively easy step to get food into their hands,” says Eloise Reid of Capstone. The dynamic team at Capstone has a contagious enthusiasm for developing solutions to seemingly intractable problems. The team reached out to Blue Cross to recruit employee volunteers to drive the food boxes from Capstone to Thetford. The response was effusive.

“Our relationship to the Blue Cross team has been elemental to the success of this pilot. They have offered dependable, vibrant volunteer support,” says Engels.

The pilot is in the third week of an initial thirteen-week run. Using part of an Office of Economic Development Food Security and Infrastructure grant, Capstone was able to deliver the parent child center a large, high efficiency freezer to receive and store the frozen meals until they are able to be distributed throughout the week. The Community Kitchen Academy meals are mouthwatering, nutritiously balanced creations that take dietary restrictions into account.

Students of the Community Kitchen Academy who make the meals come from a broad population of Vermonters who may be underemployed, could brush up on the critical soft skills needed to succeed in a work environment, or may just need a boost in confidence. The program was able to transition to a successful model during the pandemic by reducing class sizes and shifting the curriculum. Each seven-week class has had five students during the pandemic, giving them plenty of space to spread out in the kitchen. Many of the ingredients the student chefs use to prepare the meals are gleaned from farms, grocery stores and food service companies, rescuing nutritious food that would otherwise be wasted. The Vermont Food Bank supplies the remaining ingredients. The students consider nutritional balance, presentation, and taste in creating the meals while gaining their ServSafe and Department of Liquor Control certifications.

“A kitchen is a comfortable place to be,” says Chef Joey Buttendorf. “It allows students the space to thrive in a way that resonates with them, while giving them skills training and certifications that have lifelong impacts on their confidence and sense of self.”

Chef Joey has an effusive personality that evokes the warmth of a kitchen. A New England Culinary Institute chef for 15 years, the current class is her 22nd session of the Barre program.

As the pilot gains steam in the coming weeks, the team will be able to assess how to best support families. “This is truly a pilot, so we will be able to evaluate what is working and what could be improved,” says Engels. “What is inspiring about community-driven work is that it eases access to what folks might need and we get to build pathways toward thriving, together. Addressing time poverty and food security uplifts the community further not by simply providing for people, but instead by solving challenges together.”

“Folks are working, sometimes multiple jobs, raising their family and doing everything they can to survive. Parents are pressed for time. A prepared meal can add to quality time and give families access to healthier food. Time has a very close relationship to security. Two key pressures on health are relationships and food stability.”

The layers of successful human-centered programs that this pilot is built on is remarkable, and the team is constantly thinking about how to grow in ways that will support the community, both on a local level and through state policy.

“We are seeking to expand programs that work with Vermont farmers to supply local foods to the food shelves. By directing food shelf dollars to local farms, we are able to connect Vermonters more closely to the Vermont food system. Creating permanency in programs like that is a win-win for Vermonters,” said Liz Scharf, Director of Community Economic Development and Food Security at Capstone. “Ideally, we want to see people be able to choose their own foods and shop for their families without worry.”