Nutritious food is especially important during a crisis, yet children who rely on school meals may not have easy access to prepared foods at home. Many children and families depend on schools for most of their weekly nutrition.
Over half of school children in Buncombe County, NC qualify for free and reduced lunches, so the school meals provided much needed nutrition to all children in the county, regardless of income. With schools closed, children and families could be overburdened at this time of great need.
In response, Buncombe County School Nutrition quickly pivoted to provide free meals to students—open to any child in the area, from birth to 18 years old. Since March 15th, they’ve served a total of 413,009 meals with breakfast and lunch combined.
Lisa Payne, Child Nutrition Director for Buncombe County Schools, explains that the to-go meals are distributed at 15 sites in the county. Most children pick up the meals curb-side, but there are also options for families who can’t get to the pick-up sites.
“We have 52 buses going out into the community. Some of them are stopping in families homes. What’s wonderful about having the yellow buses running is that bus drivers know which families need them to stop in front of their house,” she says.
Lisa says children often feel comforted when they see their bus driver’s face, and also when they get familiar foods in their meals.
For many years, Buncombe County Schools has partnered with local farms to include farm-fresh ingredients in school meals. Local produce like strawberries, greens, summer squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, and more are incorporated into meals during the growing season. Local beef from Brasstown Beef is used in meatloaf, shepherd’s pie, nachos, and pasta sauce.
During the COVID crisis, schools are cooking with ingredients they have on hand, so the meals vary from site to site. Each meal has a protein, grain, fruit, vegetable, and dairy. Schools and organizations like ASAP are working together to include local ingredients in those meals.
Molly Nicholie, Program Director of ASAP’s Local Food Campaign, explains the goals of this ongoing partnership. “We’re trying to build those connections with school food as a market outlet for farms, but also as a way to get fresh local product to all the kids in our community.” she says.
Molly says it’s especially important to maintain these community ties during a crisis. When distributors are asked to source local product, even when schools and other institutions are closed, it strengthens the local food system.
“I think that one of the things that has been pretty dramatic, in addition to how do we keep those meals going out to children and their families, but also how do we continue to keep those food dollars in our communities?” Molly says.
Even with the logistical hurdles of feeding thousands of kids each week, Lisa has local farms in mind.
“We also have our local farmers that are so dependent on the local restaurants, and unfortunately, because they are closed, they may have excess produce so that we want to help them move since we’re feeding the number of breakfast and lunches that we’re serving. It’s always important to serve fresh local product, not only for nutrition, but also for economic sustainability for our county, for our community,” Lisa says.
Lisa says that without these meals many local children would face food insecurity. Beyond that immediate need, she says children crave familiar things when life is chaotic.
“One of our meals that we served to a little child, a little girl, she was probably 7 or 8 years old. When she got her bag of food at one of our bus stops, she saw the carton of milk and she was so excited to get the carton of milk that she recognized from school,” Lisa recalls.
Any child in the area, up to 18-years-old, qualifies for free breakfasts and lunches. There’s a list of curbside pick-up spots and resources for families and children on the “Meals and More” page of the Buncombe County Schools website.
Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania County Schools have similar programs. Across North Carolina, you can find sites for student meals at no cost near you with a simple text ‘FOODNC’ to 877-877. In Spanish, text ‘COMIDA’ to 877-877.
The free meals will continue through summer, when local produce is especially abundant. ASAP will also be distributing vegetable seeds through the meal sites. Learn more about ASAP’s work with local schools at www.growing-minds.org
Aired: April 27, 2020