Mad River Valley Eats (MRV Eats) is a new community effort that will distribute meal vouchers to local people who can select takeout meals from local restaurants. The goal of the effort is twofold: first, to support community members experiencing food insecurity but also other community heroes who might need a night off from cooking; and, second, to provide real-time support for local restaurants as they struggle with COVID-19.
“Rebecca Baruzzi from the Mad River Valley Community Fund reached out to me in mid-March to see if we could plan for what was expected to be a surge in demand for the food shelf and Meals On Wheels. We talked to restaurants and started considering how can we feed people that is not a charity or need model and that also taps into and helps the local food service community at the same time,” said Lorien Wroten, Warren, who is spearheading the effort.
Wroten, former longtime co-owner of the Common Man Restaurant and current general manager at the Pitcher Inn, said that regular guests of both of those Warren businesses reached out to ask her how they could help.
“The instant inspiration for me was when Kim Donahue at the started offering the 4 for $40 takeaway family suppers. She’s been donating one dinner to the community fund for each dinner she sells,” Wroten said.
“Kim was telling people that when people were picking up their takeaway meals, they were telling her they wanted to buy vouchers for other people. She was getting so many and the community fund hadn’t start distributing them yet. We started digging into how to distribute these vouchers. People who receive them redeem them by going to the websites and picking what day and meal they want,” she continued.
Wroten said that they’ve done some testing, distributing the vouchers to local folks to test how the system is working and said there were unexpected positive side effects. Given how diligent Vermonters and local residents have been at staying home, it’s not surprising that people are tired of making dinner night after night.
“I distributed one voucher to a mother who’d been working from home and home schooling her kids and making dinner every night while her husband and kids went out for hikes and bike rides. The night of her Round Barn supper she wrote me an email and said she got to go on the family bike ride tonight,” she added.
Another unintended consequence Wroten discovered was after she distributed vouchers to a test group she then reached back out to those people and offered them a voucher to give to another family.
“The response was overwhelmingly positive, especially for people with their own food insecurity who may not be able to give the gift of food to others,” she said.
“Those who have higher level of need may not get the ability to give and that’s important for everyone,” she added.
The current plan is to start distributing vouchers at the end of this week and initially work with restaurants that have Square stores for food ordering and then expand to restaurants that don’t use Square. Vouchers will need to be used in two weeks.
In addition to programs like the Round Barn’s where a voucher is donated for every family supper purchased, Mad River Valley Eats will be funded via donations from people and organizations.
A key feature of the plan is to get the money into the restaurants quickly so that they’re getting a critical infusion. Another key feature is that by making the vouchers independent versus linked to a specific business, it will foster healthy competition among local businesses that will need to use marketing and menus to entice customers.
“This isn’t just about restaurants and food insecurity. It’s about thriving. It’s about people who just need a break. It’s asking people who receive a voucher to nominate someone else who needs one. It’s about making a community that’s not just able to survive COVID, but one that can thrive,” Wroten said.
In addition to the vouchers, MRV Eats is working to maximize its relationships with the existing infrastructure and organizations with an eye to partnering with those services in addition to partnering with the school food program, not to takes its place but to supplement.