School districts across the country are addressing COVID-19 closures by distributing free meals with fresh fruits and vegetables to families in need.
Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support employees are working with school districts, produce vendors and officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program to provide fresh produce for breakfasts and lunches that are normally served to students in school cafeterias.
Produce orders have increased because meals have been made available to students’ families, said Pam Hamlett, a subsistence customer support specialist who supports schools in North Carolina, where 57 districts are providing free meals.
School districts have until June 30 to use current federal entitlements for produce through the USDA program, Hamlett added.
Some school districts are providing meals for families with a “no questions asked” policy regarding students’ eligibility for free or reduced-cost meals, said Lauren Ginsberg, branch chief for the Southeast region of the Subsistence Garrison Feeding Branch.
“This is the federal government’s ability to help feed local families where parents might be out of work and not have paychecks, or students who depend on free breakfasts or free lunches. The entitlement ensures that students can eat,” she said, adding that schools receive a separate entitlement for the summer.
Fresh produce provided to North Carolina schools is locally grown thanks to a “farm-to-schools” cooperative created 10 years ago by DLA Troop Support and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. Customers usually select items from a weekly catalog of in-season products, Hamlett said, but offerings have recently changed.
“We’ve had to make some adjustments because many of the school districts are providing bagged breakfasts and lunches, and they’re taking them to the community for school children,” she said.
Demand is increasing for individually packed items like baby carrots, sliced apples, celery sticks and whole fruits that are easily added to bagged lunches, Hamlett added. Requests have decreased for bulk items like potatoes and onions since school kitchen staff aren’t cooking.
“Strawberries are a huge hit this time of year,” she said. “So right now, for the next week, we’ve got over 2,000 flats of strawberries that the schools have ordered and will be distributing. The strawberries are great, and then we’ll do blueberries.”
Ginsberg said the meals may remain available in some areas even after businesses and schools reopen.
DLA Troop Support employees pride themselves on providing food to customers whether they’re students, families, service members or citizens in need, Hamlett said.
“The bottom line is we’re doing everything we can to make sure those kids get good, healthy fruits and vegetables whether they’re in school or not,” she added. “Our mission is to help our troops and to help our schools. It’s wonderful that we have these customers that we can help in situations like this.”