Feeding Kids, Feeding Community: Berea Kids Eat and community partners team up

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BEREA, Ky. (WTVQ) – When the pandemic struck Kentucky in March and schools were suddenly closed, children that relied on the USDA’s School Lunch program were quickly in peril of losing access to good, nutritious food.

Berea Kids Eat, a program of Berea College, responded, rallying a strong network of community partners to help distribute free meals to families, using emergency funding from the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program.

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In July, Berea Kids Eat expanded its vendor list to include local farms and restaurants, providing fresh food and ready-to-eat meals to any family with children under 18.

Since the pandemic began in March, Berea Kids Eat has:

  • served over 312,880 meals to families
  • injected $777,400 into the local economy, by using federal funds to pay local vendors

Over the next six weeks, Berea Kids Eat projects that total will rise to $995,906 total spent.

“Food is a basic right and need for all the kids in our community,” says Martina LeForce, Berea Kids Eat Coordinator. “That was true before the pandemic, during it, and it will be true after it. It’s for all families.”

These contracts with the USDA Summer Food Service Program have been a guaranteed continual revenue stream to help defray income lost by local school districts, local food vendors, and local farmers, due to COVID-19 closures and restrictions.

The Berea College Farm Store, Native Bagel, Lazy Eight Stock Farm, Char-Mar Subway, and Hitz BBQ are some of the food vendors partnered to provide fresh, local produce, ready-made-meals, and take-home-meal-kits for Berea youth.

“Preparing food for Berea Kids Eat and Grow Appalachia has not only been a rewarding project, it has allowed us to purchase lots of meat and produce from local growers. We have created a new position to assist with the production, which means we have brought another well-paying, high-quality service industry job to Berea. We are so grateful for the weekly orders as they have greatly insulated us from the Covid-related sharp downturn in our sales in what should be our busiest season. It truly feels like a win-win-win and it is such a pleasure to work with an organization that has such a deep commitment to our local economy,” owner of Native Bagel, Katie Startzman said.

For Thanksgiving, Berea Kids Eat distributed over 275 family meal kits brimming with local cornmeal, pastured chicken and sausage, squash, sweet potatoes, rolls, potatoes from local farms to Berea families’ tables.

“We could not do this work without all our partners. This work doesn’t belong to Berea Kids Eat… It is sustained by and goes from theory into action because of our partnerships,” shares LeForce.

Collaborators that made this distribution possible over the last nine months include: Berea College, Berea Community Schools, Berea College Sodexo Dining Services, US Department of Ag, National Parks and Recreation Association, Feeding America, Feeding KY, and Kentucky’s Heartland.

Grow Appalachia’s Berea Kids Eat Program has worked in Berea since 2016 to fight childhood hunger, increase healthy food access, and support community food resiliency, serving over 412,000 meals to youth while supporting health and wellness initiatives and food security programming for low-income communities.

“That’s the heart of rural work – so many people wearing so many hats and carrying the load together,” says Leforce.

Recently, the USDA extended meal service waivers for the SFSP, allowing for the distribution and reimbursement of free meals to continue through June 30, 2021, working to ensure that children have access to healthy food and increasing household food security during a time of great uncertainty.

While the path ahead contains a great number of uncertainties, there are many things to be grateful for in the resiliency of community collaboration, strength of partnerships forged in challenging times, and wisdom gained through lessons learned. Through all this, hope emerges as a guide as Martina LeForce shares with a smile, “There’s no going back just going forward.”

Grow Appalachia, a Strategic Initiative of Berea College, began as a partnership in 2009 between Berea College and JP’s Peace, Love & Happiness Foundation to address food insecurity in Appalachia.

For more than 10 years, Grow Appalachia has been working throughout central Appalachia with a vision of a vibrant regional food system where healthy food is accessible to all. Grow Appalachia partners with organizations, communities, and families in Appalachia to create healthy, resilient, and economically viable food systems.

In 10 years, Grow Appalachia has partnered with more than 6,000 families who’ve produced more than 4 million pounds of organic produce either in their backyards or at community gardens. Learn more about our initiatives at growappalachia.berea.edu.