December 29, 2017

Meal Train: UVM grads’ service helps neighbors help neighbors


BURLINGTON — When Joyce Kahn broke her leg, she relied on friends and even some people she didn’t know very well to lend a hand.

And lend a hand they did, bringing her dinner every night until she could get back on her feet.

The nightly meal was set in motion by a friend who used Meal Train, a kind of neighbor-helping-neighbor website.

Living alone, Kahn said while she was on crutches she couldn’t get around “to do anything.”

“I’m the grateful recipient of the Meal Train,” said Kahn, a Montpelier resident.

Meal Train was launched several years ago by two University of Vermont graduates, Michael Laramee and Stephen DePasquale.

According to the website, their mission is simple:

“Meal Train, in its most basic form, helps to simplify the organization of meal giving around significant life events. It is rooted in the idea that a meal is a symbolic gesture of one person’s willingness to help another. The meal is a vehicle that allows the giving party the opportunity to show they care, that they hope to reduce a burden.”

The genesis for Meal Train dates to 2009 when Laramee’s wife was part of Burlington neighborhood group that organized meals for families with new babies.

Laramee recalled that effort took quite a bit of coordination and meal planning for the number of people involved. He thought there had to be a “tech solution that would kind of facilitate this great community-based organizing effort,” and one that he could take to a wider audience.

Although he didn’t have the computer programming skills to devise a program, Laramee knew his friend and fellow 1998 UVM grad, Stephen DePasquale, a Williston resident, did.

By January 2010, Meal Train was ready to go. The first Meal Train was organized by Laramee’s mother who lives in the Northeast Kingdom.

Laramee, who lives in Burlington, said anyone can create a Meal Train around a birth, illness, surgery or some other life-changing event.

Someone who organizes a Meal Train creates a web page for the recipient, denoting the time of day to drop off the meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner), the number of days required, meal preferences and any special instructions. Monetary donations and gift cards can also be made.

“The next step is really to get friends and family invited,” Laramee said. “So they share that Meal Train calendar via email, Facebook, Twitter. They can put it in a church newsletter.”

Kahn’s Meal Train was started by her friend, Darryl Bloom.

Kahn asked her friend if she could put the word out among the congregation at Beth Jacob Synagogue that she could use a little help.

And that’s all it took.

“People signed up,” Kahn said. “Like the first day (the meal calendar) was filled. People called me and said we tried to sign up and there was no room so, ‘What else can we do for you?’”

Bloom was no stranger to helping others. When someone was in need she would call or email her friends and see what they could do.

But that system could prove a bit cumbersome and haphazard. When Meal Train came along it simplified efforts to provide support.

“It provides a calendar and people can go directly to the Meal Train website and sign up on the calendar without another person having to organize all that,” Bloom said. “And then you can put on one place where the person or family’s food preferences are and the days they want the food and any particular instructions on when to deliver it.”

Kahn said it’s not just the nightly meal that was important. She said friends who came by also stay and visit, providing her with company.

“I look forward to it because the only times I went out were for medical appointments,” she said.

Setting up a Meal Train and designating one meal a day is free.

Laramee and DePasquale also offer what they call Meal Train Plus. Besides meals, someone may also need a ride to the store or doctor, a babysitter, dog walking, household chores or someone may just want someone to visit. There is a one-time fee of $10 for each Meal Train Plus.

As a business, Meal Train also generates income from ads on its site.

Laramee said 97 percent of those who use the site use the free version.

He said Meal Trains have been created in 40 countries with more than 250,000 meals organized each month. In the U.S., he said California and Texas are the most active states.

For Kahn, the daily Meal Train visit was an unforgettable and positive experience.

In Hebrew, Kahn said the word is “mitzvah,” or good deed.

“So he’s doing a mitzvah for people everywhere by helping them,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without it really.”

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