Durham Public Schools partnered with several community organizations to resume feeding students and families Thursday after halting its original meal support program on April 6.
The new meal program, known as Durham FEAST, distributes free meals for breakfast and lunch prepared by Durham restaurants to 24 pickup sites nearly every weekday, according to a news release.
For more information on where Durham Public Schools families may pick up meals, visit Durham FEAST's website.
“Early in the week, families will get four breakfasts and four lunches for each child,” said Chip Sudderth III, the district’s chief communications officer. “Later in the week, they will get two breakfasts and two lunches for each child.”
More than 60 percent of the district’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches, he said. That’s why Durham Public Schools launched a daily meal support program on March 23 after closing schools a week before. For two weeks, district employees distributed meals to students at 81 sites across the county.
But on April 6, the district stopped the program after an on-site employee tested positive for COVID-19 and most of its staff applied for state emergency paid leave through April 30.
The Durham Public Schools Foundation is one of the district’s partners in the Durham FEAST initiative, though executive director Magan Gonzales-Smith said they don't usually do direct service work.
“But with schools closed, all of our other projects went on pause,” she said. “So we decided to turn our attention to the one of the most pressing needs for our students and their families, which is meal support.”
They had been providing weekend meals for families while the district still operated its weekday meal program. Under the new program, the foundation has been coordinating volunteers and private food donations.
Gonzales-Smith said they’ve recruited over 500 volunteers a week for various roles, like handing out food or loading food onto buses.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” she said. “When we open our volunteer slots, they’re usually filled within 12 to 24 hours.”
To protect themselves and families against the virus, Sudderth said all volunteers will wear masks and gloves, while the Durham County Department of Public Health will provide social distancing training to all site supervisors.
Over 20 Durham restaurants and kitchens so far have agreed to supply meals for children, Gonzalez-Smith said, including the Restaurant at the Durham, whose chef Andrea Reusing recruited many local restaurants to take part in the program.
The foundation is also working with local farmers to provide fresh produce with children’s meals.
“Last week, it was apples,” Gonzales-Smith said. “This week, it’s carrots and strawberries.”
The program isn’t just for students, she said. Adults without children can come and pick up bags of “shelf-stable” groceries — like canned goods — and frozen family casseroles made available through community contributions.
Food Insight Group, an organization committed to food equity and access, has also partnered with the district to carry out the program.
Co-founder Linden Thayer said FIG has done a lot of work with the district in the past five years. When COVID-19 struck, they’d been engaged in a yearlong central kitchen feasibility study, which Thayer said they put on hold.
“We’re trained as researchers,” she said. “But on the spectrum of researcher to advocate, we fall off way on the deep end on the advocate side.”
When the district rolled out its first food program, she said FIG offered support from a distance. But now, she said FIG acts as the district’s food vendor.
The program is similar to the district’s summer meals program, in which the district hires a vendor to provide meals and reimburses costs through federal school meal funding. Meals must meet certain nutrition requirements, though some, like milk, have been waived, Thayer said.
As the vendor, she said FIG manages all participating restaurants, which prepare meals with locally bought ingredients and receive $2 for every breakfast meal and $3.70 for lunches.
“They’re breaking even, but they’re able to pay their staff at least, which is great,” Thayer said. “So it’s sort of a win-win all around hopefully.”
Between Thursday and Friday, they delivered about 10,000 meals, she said.
The partners expect that the program will continue at least through the middle of May, Thayer said. As of now, North Carolina public schools are set to open back up later in May.
“The assumption is we’ll be closed long term,” she said, adding, “It is entirely possible that this could go all the way through the summer.”
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