A program operated by Sullivan Foundation partner school Berea College serves thousands of free meals to children in need every day, a much-needed service in the Berea, Ky. area where more than 30 percent of kids live in households below the poverty level.

Berea College and nonprofit Grow Appalachia partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Department of Education to launch the Berea Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) in 2016. The program worked with Berea College Sodexo Dining Services to prepare and serve free breakfasts and lunches to youth age 18 and under during the summer months while school was out.

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In 2018, Berea SFSP expanded to become Berea Kids Eat, a nutrition initiative that identifies and closes gaps that contribute to local food insecurity. The program became even more important when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Kentucky in March 2020 and public schools closed down. Children who had relied on the USDA’s school lunch program were suddenly going without essential meals, so BKE stepped in to fill the gap.

The program has proven vital since more than 80 percent of children enrolled in the Berea Community Schools system rely on free school breakfasts and lunches every day.

According to a story posted on LEX18.com, the program serves free meals—breakfast and lunch—every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and draws long lines of cars. The meals are provided by local restaurants and farmers and always include a protein, a vegetable, a fruit, a grain and milk.

“Basically, what we’re doing is, we are offering what would have been the equivalent of school lunch, just during the pandemic,” Berea Kids Eat Coordinator Martina Leforce told LEX18 in December. “We serve about 4,000 meals a day.”

The program, which has federal funding, doesn’t just benefit families and children facing food insecurity issues. It has pumped an estimated $700,000 back into the local economy because restaurants that have been struggling to stay afloat in the pandemic are reimbursed for the meals they prepare.

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Growers in the Berea area also benefit from the program, which uses local pork, chicken, eggs and other meats as well as various types of produce.

Martina Leforce

“It started off with me calling [local restaurants] and being, like, ‘This might be out of left field, but would you be able to deliver us 2,000 subs a day?’” Leforce said. “Every owner responded, and they were excited not just because it helps their businesses from having to close their doors, but they’re also able to help feed kids in the community.”

“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,” Katie Startzman, owner of a local eatery called Native Bagel, told WTVQ. “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.”

WTVQ reported that, as of early December, Berea Kids Eat had served more than 312,880 meals to families in the area. “Food is a basic right and need for all the kids in our community,” LeForce told WTVQ. “That was true before the pandemic, during it, and it will be true after it. It’s all for families.”

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