40,000 Meals & Counting $315,000 grant gives Chester Helping Hands-Springfield Family Center partnership the boost to feed more

Volunteers stack restaurant-made meals ready for distribution on the Chester Green on a recent chilly November Wednesday. All photos by Shawn Cunningham unless otherwise noted.

By Cherise Madigan
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

During the bone chilling months of last March, when the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning it race across the country, Chester residents Chris Meyer and Jason Tostrup asked themselves a question: Will our neighbors be going hungry?

As Vermont residents became confined to their homes, and unemployment spiked, the answer became obvious. 

Their idea was simply to get food out to the community. In the nine months since their initiative began, that concept, now known as Chester Helping Hands, has grown to include numerous service organizations, restaurants and volunteers distributing free pre-made meals and produce boxes for $18 to $25 throughout the region.

When Chester Helping Hands was founded in March, many Vermonters were just beginning to grasp what the pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders would mean for their families and finances. But from its beginnings, said Meyer, the organization has distributed more than 40,000 meals in a highly choreographed dance that involves restaurants cooking and packaging meals, delivery to pick-up sites, traffic coordination and serving.

“It’s been a very fulfilling process for me, and I feel like we’ve become a closer and more connected community through a number of towns,” he said. “That has been remarkable.”

Meyer has a history of community service in Chester, from setting up Christmas decorations on the Green to fundraising for a new playground at Chester-Andover Elementary School. Tostrup was engaged with the local food landscape as chef/owner of the now-closed Free Range Restaurant.

Chris Meyer, who has lead efforts to decorate the Chester Green for Christmas and helped raise funds for the new CAES playground, also spearheaded efforts with Jason Tostrup to feed the local world. Photo by Cynthia Prairie

Their effort to address hunger began with a fundraising effort that brought in a number of small donations, which allowed the Free Range to distribute meals twice a week from mid-March to mid-July. Simultaneously, Meyer and Tostrup partnered with produce distributor Katsiroubas Brothers of Boston to coordinate the sale of vegetable and fruit boxes at Chester-Andover Elementary School each Saturday.  Local farmers and other vendors also sell at the Saturday distribution, in a sort of “drive-through farmers market.”

That money goes to Katsiroubas to provide produce directly to the consumer “at a time when access is difficult,” Meyer says.  Those difficulties can stem from supply chain interruptions and fear of Covid-19 exposure at the grocery store.

Produce boxes are ordered ahead of time and placed in cars with minimum physical contact during pick-ups, he adds.

 A new partnership is created

Following the Free Range’s closure in late August however, their work slowed down, but also in August, Meyer found a new partnership with the Springfield Family Center. By that time, Meyer said, Chester Helping Hands had already distributed more than 28,000 meals.

The two organizations received a $315,000 grant to participate in the Vermont Everyone Eats  program. Now, Helping Hands is distributing approximately 2,250 meals a week, said Meyer.

‘First and foremost, Everyone Eats
is an economic stimulus program.
It’s meant to put money into restaurants’
pockets to keep people employed and
keep their doors open.’

Chris Meyer
Chester Helping Hands

“What we started in Chester, it was the right people doing the right thing at the right time,” he said. “We found a mechanism to do a very safe pickup for people with Covid concerns and it’s just continued and grown from there.”

Between August and early November, Chester Helping Hands has served nearly 20,000 meals to families in Windham and Windsor counties — from Rockingham to Ludlow to Londonderry — through the Everyone Eats program. The organization’s partnership with the Springfield Family Center has provided Meyer with the administrative mechanism needed to operate on such a large scale, providing what he describes as a mix between public service and restaurant stimulus.

“First and foremost, Everyone Eats is an economic stimulus program,” he said. “It’s meant to put money into restaurants’ pockets to keep people employed and keep their doors open. It also has a mandate … all (restaurant) participants must use a minimum of 10 percent ingredients that are either sourced in Vermont or produced by Vermont companies.”

Chester Helping Hands currently partners with 13 restaurants in seven towns. The restaurants are reimbursed $10 for every meal they provide. Meyer estimates that the program has re-invested as much as $100,000 into local restaurants so far, helping to insulate them from the impacts of shut-downs and minimize losses.

The restaurant stimulus aspect of the program is emphasized by the relatively low bar to qualify for free meals. Only one question is asked of beneficiaries: Has Covid-19 impacted your ability to access food? This can be because of financial troubles, Meyer says, or even because stores have stopped carrying products you regularly buy.

“Even though it’s feeding at-risk populations, it’s pretty gentle admission, and that’s intentional,” he said. “Our local restaurants are so crucial to the community, and this is just another possibility for them to earn some revenue to supplement everything else that they already do.”

The Telegraph asked several participating restaurants for comment, none were available by press time. Some said they were very busy with increased take-out orders ahead of Thanksgiving.

Growing partnerships cover more communities

Assisting the effort are a handful of community organizations — including Black River Good Neighbors, Neighborhood Connections and the Chester-Andover Family Center— under the leadership of the Springfield Family Center. Through this collaboration, organizations are able to expand their impact beyond town borders to address a regional problem, according to Trish Paradis, executive director of the Springfield Family Center.

“Knowing that people were being impacted by the pandemic, we wanted to reach out beyond our service areas to make sure that everyone had the resources they needed,” Paradis said. “The Everyone Eats program afforded us the opportunity to do that.”

Cars line up on a recent November Wednesday to pick up take-home, restaurant prepared meals.

The program now has distribution sites in Londonderry, Ludlow, Cavendish, Chester, Springfield, Rockingham, Bellows Falls and Grafton, according to Paradis, and many sites serve multiple towns. Paradis distributes the per-meal funding to participating restaurants, who in turn verify that they’re using the required percentage of Vermont products. She then invoices Southeastern Vermont Community Action — SEVCA, which administers the grant funding for Everyone Eats.

For Thanksgiving, holiday themed meals were distributed on Tuesday, Nov. 24 following the distribution of Thanksgiving food boxes the Saturday prior. A similar initiative will take place before the Christmas holiday.

Both Meyer and Paradis are hoping to continue the Everyone Eats program into 2021. While the grant funding will be spent by early December, Paradis says that the program has recently been extended with additional funding that will last through the end of the 2020.

“The goal is to continue to provide food to people who are facing adversity,” she continued. “Charitable food organizations have become critical resources for communities. One in four Vermonters right now are struggling with food insecurity, and we’re working harder than ever to meet that demand.”

Donations to Chester Helping Hands are tax deductible. Send checks to CHH, P.O. Box 5, Chester VT 05143

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Filed Under: AndoverBusinessesCavendishChesterCommunityCommunity and Arts LifeCovid 19 CoverageFeaturedGraftonIn the CommunityLatest NewsLondonderryWestonWindham

About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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  1. Kathy Bentley says:

    My parents have been the recipients of these meals. They, and I, are very grateful. I get a weekly report of how tasty these meals have been! Thank you to all the volunteers and restaurants.

  2. Bob Parker says:

    You have assembled a great team of volunteers. Giving your time while serving in all kinds of weather.
    Thanks for caring.