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A Recipe To Thrive: Farmers, Restaurants, Students Come Together To Buck Pandemic Woes

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Photo Provided
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Grow Ohio Valley
Grow Ohio Valley staff and volunteers handing out free meals for at-risk school children.

Organizations in Ohio County have come together to address community needs during this pandemic. In a bid to lift each other up, local restaurants and farmers are teaming up to help feed kids.

At an elementary school in Wheeling, Americorps serving with the nonprofit Grow Ohio Valley are handing out free dinners to students.

While counties across the state have started feeding programs for breakfast and lunch, what makes this dinner program unique is the partnership between farmers, restaurants and schools to make this meal.

Quick Thinking to Quick Action

This version of the USDA At Risk Supper program is the brainchild of Grow Ohio Valley. The organization tapped West Virginia Northern Community College and Ohio County Schools. Together these partners have come together to address three community needs: keeping locally owned restaurants in business, helping farmers deal with surplus, and, above all, feeding students.

As Grow Ohio Valley Executive Director Danny Swan explained, his organization is working with the county to adapt the existing at-risk feeding program in a way to take care of all three of those needs.

“Basically getting restaurants to prepare food for kids and then Grow Ohio Valley’s mobile farmers market trucks would stop by the restaurants, pick up the meals and take them to these schools in high-need neighborhoods, and distribute them to kids,” Swan said.

The United States Department of Agriculture has a program in place called Child and Adult Care Food Program which provides reimbursements for free and reduced meals served by schools. The current rate for suppers served by the school is $3.41. Grow Ohio Valley has also secured some grant funding to make that amount closer to $5 per meal for the restaurants preparing it.

The team from Sarah’s On Main in West Virginia Northern Community College’s kitchen posing with the meals they had made.

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Credit Photo Provided / Grow Ohio Valley
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Grow Ohio Valley
The team from Sarah’s On Main in West Virginia Northern Community College’s kitchen posing with the meals they had made.

Sarah Lydick, the owner of Sarah’s On Main which is one of the restaurants preparing meals, says that she’s grateful to be involved.

“Not only are we able to pay our employees to come in and make these meals, it’s a feel good thing, you know?” Lydick said. “It feels really great to be able to help people that need it right now. We’re not giving them prepackaged Doritos. These are like real wholesome meals that we feel really proud to be making and serving.”

The meals are either prepared in the restaurant’s kitchen, or the industrial kitchen space at West Virginia Northern Community College — depending on kitchen capacity.

The program started in late April, and came together quickly after the planning phases, as West Virginia Northern Community College associate professor Chef Chris Keyfauver explains.

“I got a phone call on a Friday morning from Chef Gene [Evans] who said ‘Hey, Danny called me about this, what do you think? What should we do next?’  Within a week of when I was informed, we were pulling in product to start that process, and that Monday we produced our first meals,” Keyfauver said.

While the program itself was set up rather quickly, the rollout process was slow, starting with only two days of meal distribution at one school. Swan said this was on purpose to gauge interest.

“You only get reimbursed for the amount of kids that actually show up to pick up a meal. So we just have kind of quietly been spreading the word through, through the principals at the schools who then call the specific families and try to have some way to devise how many kids will show up and that's how many meals we could prepare,” Swan explained. “You know, we don't want to prepare 1000 meals and only 100 kids show up and even worse, we don't want to prepare 100 meals and 1000 kids show up.”

The program has now expanded to meals being disbursed Monday through Thursday at three locations in the county.

Create to Replicate

One of the major goals of the program is to create a model that can be replicated across the state. Grow Ohio Valley has been keeping track of all of the financial and logistical needs for the program, so in the future it can easily be replicated.

Ohio County Schools Child Nutrition Director Renee Griffin says as a whole, the county is impressed with how the program has panned out so far.

“So, we now have a model in place that the state department is very proud of, as are we, and we're just glad we're able to partner with our local community to help our kids because ultimately, that's what we're doing. We're not only helping feed our families that are struggling right now, but we're helping local businesses and we're helping local farmers and all those things, I think, are a win for everybody's situation,” Griffin said.

The only caveat is the program in its current form can only go for as long as the school year, which is the end of May.

While the current funding mechanism is expiring soon, Danny Swan believes the idea will continue in one form or another.

“It’s hard to devise what the landscape will look like post coronavirus, that said, yes, I think these ideas will persist in one form or another, like this restaurant to schools program has an ability to become something that’s part of the fabric of our community.”

As of now, Grow Ohio Valley is exploring other funding options that will allow the program to seamlessly continue into the summer.

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