News | Sept. 18, 2020

Back to school means a return to fresh fruits and vegetables for students nationwide

By Nancy Benecki DLA Troop Support

School districts across the country transitioned from cafeteria dining to grab-and-go meals as their doors closed in the spring due to COVID-19.

Now that schools are back in session for the new academic year, the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support Subsistence supply chain is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure these students are fed, whether they are back in the classroom or learning remotely.

Through the Department of Defense Fresh Program, Subsistence works with its diverse network of suppliers to distribute produce to USDA school customers.

Funding for this year’s program is $371 million, an increase of $20 million from last year, said Patricia Scott, chief of the Subsistence Continental United States Garrison Feeding Division. So far, $39 million was spent on fresh fruits and vegetables, she said.

Funding and participation in the program usually increase every year, said Michael Espinoza, a Subsistence field representative.

“When Arizona started [in the program], the whole state had $500,000 for the year,” Espinoza said. “Now it’s almost $3 to $4 million.”

When the state joined the program, there were around six school districts that participated, he said. Now, the entire state participates.

Each school receives different amounts of money, said Genaro Cordova, a Subsistence field representative.

School districts continue to place their orders based on the number of students enrolled through either in-person or virtual attendance, Cordova said. If a district is doing remote learning and is small enough, some districts will even deliver meals to the students’ homes, he said.

“The kids that are studying remotely, can’t go anywhere and the parents are limited in work or not working at all,” Espinoza said.  It helps the parents feed the kids.”

Single serve foods, like apples, oranges, grapes, baby carrots and celery sticks, remain popular for school districts operating remotely. Fruits and vegetables that are in season are also offered based on vendor availability.

Many factors, from fires and hurricanes in regions where produce grows to food plants closing due to the pandemic can affect that availability.

“It’s a snowball effect,” Espinoza said. “Mother Nature decides to mess with us in a certain area, and it affects what’s growing at a certain time. Vendors have to stay on top of [what’s going on]. Because we’re using U.S. federal dollars, and because of the Berry Amendment, we’re not allowed to buy foreign products for schools and tribes, so that makes things much harder sometimes.”

Cordova and Espinoza, who have nearly 70 years of combined experience in contracting, talk to each other nearly every day and agree that communication with the vendors and schools is key, especially during uncertain times.

“Sometimes vendors will tell us ahead of time if they don’t have a certain size serving of carrots, and they ask if we can take a different size,” Cordova said. “They’ll notify us ahead of time of a shortage or substitute, and we can give the schools a head’s up.”

Orders are picking up as more schools return for the year. During the week of August 10, Subsistence processed 3090 orders, Scott said. During the week of September 7, the numbers increased to 11,987 orders, she said.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cordova said the program has a 99 percent fill rate, with no complaints.

“The thing is, we’ve got to make sure that the kids get fed, one way or the other,” Espinoza said. “And along with the vendors, I think we’ve been able to accomplish that.”