While schools around the country navigate how to educate students in the midst of a pandemic, one thing is certain: the demand to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to students is only growing.
Allocations for the Department of Defense Fresh Program are at a record $470 million, as the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support’s Subsistence supply chain works with its suppliers to distribute produce to U.S. Department of Agriculture customers, said Patricia Scott, chief of the Subsistence Continental U.S. Garrison Feeding Division.
This is an increase from the $371 million allocated to the program last year, Scott said, and half of this year’s funding is already spent.
Through the National School Lunch Program, states get support from USDA Foods, which provides several options on where they can purchase food, said Katherine Staley, Chief of the Program Integrity and Monitoring Branch with USDA Food Distribution Division. One of those options is the USDA DoD Fresh Program, where many schools are now allocating much of their funding, she said.
There was concern last year because many produce orders were being canceled as schools were closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Staley said, but orders increased as districts offered curbside pickups of prepackaged meals.
“Then as they came back in March, April and May, we began to see where USDA DoD Fresh was meeting their needs because of the fact that [schools] could get weekly deliveries of fresh produce, and the vendors were able to give them individually wrapped products like baby carrots in a bag, orange slices, and apple slices,” Staley said.
States are interested in convenience and having items they don’t have to handle or touch, Scott said.
“Pre-bagged items, cut-up fruit or individually wrapped items are the really big sellers,” she said.
As a result, orders for fresh fruits and vegetables have been extremely high compared to previous years, Scott said, especially because other items schools usually purchase may not be available or needed right now, such as bulk foods used to prepare large meals for a cafeteria setting.
“While states figure out how to get the other items, we are a failsafe,” Scott said. “Our contracts are in place, our vendors are up and running and ready to go. It’s a team effort making this work.”
The demand for fruits and vegetables has been beneficial throughout the supply chain.
“It was a win for the produce distributors and a win for the schools,” Staley said. “Not only does this get fresh fruits and vegetables to the kids, but all of this produce is U.S. produced. It also supports American agriculture.”
The demand for fresh fruits and vegetables is continuing to grow. During the week of Jan. 25, Subsistence shipped 19,398 orders, Scott said.
“Even in the hybrid/virtual learning environment that we’re in right now, to ship produce to over 19,000 schools is pretty impressive,” she said.
In November, the supply chain did an all-time high of 20,958 orders in one week, she said.
“What this shows me is the state offices are definitely keeping food service at the forefront of their planning, and even though the school day might be a combination of in-class or a virtual hybrid, they’re still preparing lunches and making sure that they’re distributed to the students that are there or the families that can drive and pick it up,” Scott said.
School food service directors in particular have had to face the challenges of the pandemic head on and adapt to the different learning environments, Staley said.
“The school food service folks really just turned on a dime,” Staley said. “They were the true heroes during the pandemic and continue to be because if the superintendent says we’re going to open schools tomorrow or we have a COVID-19 case and we have to close, they still feed the kids.”
When the USDA DoD Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program started in 1995, eight states participated and spent a total of $3.2 million, Staley said. In 2021, 48 states plus Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington, DC, are participating.
DLA Troop Support’s partnership with the USDA is very important, as a whole of government partner, Scott said.
“It’s a great model for other whole of government efforts that might come down the pike,” she said.
Staley agreed that the partnership between USDA and DLA has been an important factor in the program’s success.
“I think the success story is how through this 25 year-long partnership that USDA has with DLA, we have seen tremendous growth in this program,” Staley said “We wouldn’t have been doing it for the last 25 years and continue to see the growth without this partnership. We get great support. DLA is always very responsive if there are issues and if there are needs, they work with us.”
At the heart of the program is making sure students have access to a nutritious meal during each school day and getting children to adopt a healthy diet at a young age, Scott said.
“What makes it work it is our agencies work together to find solutions, because there’s fundamental goodness,” Scott said. “It’s heartwarming to get a note from a school saying the kids love the program, and the kids love the fresh fruits and vegetables. We are in the best category for providing healthy foods to the school lunches. You can’t go wrong with fresh fruits and vegetables.”