At the height of schools closing around the country due to COVID-19 in mid-March, the Defense Logistics Agency’s Subsistence supply chain added 200 schools from Illinois to a program that would help them get fresh fruits and vegetables into lunches for students, and eventually the community.
The Department of Defense Fresh Program is a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, DLA Troop Support and the Food and Nutrition Service to support the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. Through this program, DLA Troop Support buys and distributes fresh produce weekly to schools using USDA funds.
The Subsistence supply chain worked with Illinois schools and produce vendors to make sure they were added to the program as seamlessly as possible, despite unprecedented challenges, said Michael Cianfrani, chief of Subsistence North Central Customer Operations.
“Everybody was trying to redefine what their role was going to be, and how they were going to do it,” Cianfrani said. “It was a very challenging time to add customers. Vendors were scrambling. Restaurants were closing. It was the perfect storm, as they say.”
To add new schools to the DoD Fresh Program, Subsistence takes several steps to ensure the additions can be accommodated, Cianfrani said. This includes communicating with produce vendors to see if they can handle new customers and checking with delivery trucks to see if they can add new stops to routes.
There is also vital coordination with state and local representatives, said Jermaine Alexander, a tailored vendor logistics specialist with the Subsistence supply chain.
“In Illinois, we have a working relationship with the state representative there,” he said. “We were able to communicate back and forth to assure that the schools can get their products.”
For Illinois schools, Alexander said Subsistence reached out to the state representative to obtain an additional $1.2 million for those schools.
The USDA allocated $320 million in funding last school year to program, with a record $365 million already dedicated for the 2020-2021 school year, said Patricia Scott, chief of DLA Troop Support’s Customer Operations Garrison Feeding Division.
Where the supply chain initially anticipated losses because of school closings, that has not been the case, Scott said.
“COVID-19 initially gave us a dip because a lot of schools canceled orders, but on the flip side, with community feeding sites and the USDA putting more money into the program, our sales are strong and we’re above plan,” Scott said, adding that the USDA allocated $8 million into the program since March to meet the new demands.
Navigating the Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Order/Receipt System is another step that Subsistence has with all new customers, said Karen Kenton, a customer specialist in the Subsistence supply chain.
And while the new customers were learning the program during the pandemic, existing customers and vendors adapted to the new way of conducting business, she said.
“The schools are doing amazing,” she said. “The vendors have really stepped up. We’ve had a lot of shifts and changes, and we’ve just tried to move with the result of getting the food to the kids and families. That’s the most important thing.”
The supply chain also kept up an active response to the increase of requests that were rushing in at the time, Alexander said.
“All of us worked tirelessly to actively communicate back and forth with the schools, the state representative and the vendors,” he said. “That was a challenge within itself.”
COVID-19’s impact on the entire country was a challenge unlike the supply chain had ever seen, Cianfrani said.
“We’ve faced disasters in specific areas, but we had other areas in the country that were unaffected,” he said. “With this pandemic, all 50 states were affected, so it we couldn’t just move product from one area to another and it wouldn’t impact everyone else.”
The speed at which schools and vendors were shutting down caused “a complete supply chain impact,” Cianfrani said.
“With [some of] the food plants shutting down and workers getting infected, our suppliers had to adjust with different shifts and people taking off,” he said. “There was just no pandemic experience that anyone had ever gone through or had a template to model. We had to go with what we had from other incidents and be really creative with what we are able to do.”
DoD Fresh typically supplies schools with items like leafy greens for salads and other produce such as onions and potatoes that can be prepared for meals, Kenton said. The switch to grab-and-go meals has increased demand for single pieces of fruit like apple and pears, or single serve items like baby carrots, Kenton said.
“Everyone wants to do all they can do, it’s just part of being an American,” Cianfrani said. “We have that mentality, whenever our soldiers have a need or our children have a need, it’s part of our DNA. Everyone wants to do what they can do.”