January 29, 2022

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Fit And Go Forward

Duo tackling food insecurity: It takes a village | Reading

READING – The obtaining and executing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Distribution

Program is an outstanding example of Reading’s leaders, their support staff and residents reaching out to help each other during these pandemic times when families faced food insecurity for the first time in their entire lives. Many have been furloughed or have had hours reduced at their jobs creating enormous financial stress that has continued far longer than imagined.

Addressing this challenge initially were School Superintendent John Doherty, CFO Gail Dowd and Food Services Director Danielle Collins. They determined that the right thing to do was to ensure that our families receive meals at a time of unprecedented food insecurity. Their discussions made known to the Town’s Incident Command Center which is headed up by Town Manager Bob LeLacheur, Police Chief David Clark and Fire Chief Greg Burns.

Their supporting staff includes key people as Assistant Town Manager, Jean Delios; Assistant Fire Chief, Paul Jackson; School Superintendent Dr. John Doherty; School Committee member, Carla Nazzaro; Board of Health member Kerry Dunnell; and Community Services Director, Kevin Bohmiller. Additional support comes from key staff members of the Police, Fire and School Facilities as swell as Custodial Staff. All help to move the food each and every week exemplifying the quote that “It Takes a Village”.

The plan to participate in the USDA’s Food Distribution Program was presented to the Reading School Committee who whole heartedly agreed that in creating a model for meal distribution , in the absence of meals normally served in schools now shut down statewide, simply needed to be done. Danielle Collins, Reading’s School Nutrition Director applied for a Seamless Summer Operation model to the state, interviewed remotely and subsequently received approval.

Under normal circumstances, only high need school districts can apply to participate in the Seamless Summer model. However, with insecurity reaching an all-time high and so many families facing these challenges for the first time due to Covid-19, the USDA made the decision to approve all programs across the country. Reading’s application was for a free, open site which means any child from birth to 21 can receive meals free of charge. Eliminating barriers to food access and providing all that we were able to is Reading’s goal in designing its food distribution program.

A family receives free meals for seven days for each child living in the household which cover breakfast and lunch as regulations limit programs to 2 meals per day maximum. Distribution takes place twice a week: Wednesdays from 2:30-3:30 pm and Friday from 11:00am to 12:00 noon at Reading Memorial High School, under the bridge that connects the High School to Hawkes Field House. To date, since the start of the USDA Food Distribution Program began in March 2020, they have distributed over 86,983 meals. There have been 60,561 meals served since the 2021 academic year began on July 1, 2020 and a conservative estimate for the entire 2021 fiscal year is about 150,000 meals.

Danielle Collins, our School Nutrition Director, is also working closely with each family to ensure allergies are addressed as well as working on alternative distribution methods for those who may not have transportation or are quarantined. They have strived not to lose the human interaction with appropriate protection during the pandemic.

In addition to the USDA meal program, Reading’s district is enrolled in the Farm to Fresh Families program. This program allows for the excess food produced by our farmers to be distributed to non-profit organizations. Covid-19 forced farmers, who are struggling, to throw away fresh, healthy food. The federal government pulled together these excess items and the Reading district bid on them, becoming a conduit. Families now receive fresh fruit, vegetables dairy and meat items that would have otherwise become part of the sad food waste story. In total, each family typically receives 2 packages weekly resulting in 400 total packages distributed.

The bigger challenge Gail and Danielle faced was not in meeting nutritional needs but guidance in meeting the distribution needs relative to transportation, traffic and operations. This brought them to the Incident Command Center where the extraordinary community of Reading jumped into action involving the Town’s Facilities and Custodial staff, Police & Fire Departments, Board of Health, and Town Leaders who volunteered to observe, guide, and support changes that greatly improved the service to our community. Through their collaboration, Gail and Danielle were able to streamline their process, making adjustments and enhancements for more efficient and effective distribution. They are incredibly thankful for the collaboration across the School and Town to be able to work together to ensure meals for families.

According to Gail: “Many families have reached out on behalf of a neighbor or a friend in need to ensure that they are all safe and well-provided for, reflective of the truly wonderful people that comprise our collective family. Many parents share that their children can’t wait to come through our line because both our meals and connection offer normalcy in a time when that has been extremely rare. At our best, I hope we have provided nourishment to more than just bodies. We have also heard heartwarming stories of neighbors helping each other out by picking up food for each other (due to timing conflicts or quarantine), as well as families and neighbors sharing recipes and items from the produce boxes. These stories show how resilient our community is to be able to still find ways to connect and share during these challenging times.

The USDA’s Food Distribution Program has been approved and funded through June 30, 2021. Gail feels that as long as there is need within our community, we will continue operating our programs”.

Danielle indicates that It is her responsibility to ensure the healthy growth of our children. “I remember feeling overwhelmed in March because we needed to pioneer an entirely new model of operation overnight. I didn’t yet realize how many amazing people would jump in, without reservation, to help our program in ways I couldn’t have imagined. My gratitude to our Food Service Team, Academic Leaders, Police, Fire, BOH, Town leadership, Facilities and School Committee, and families is immeasurable. If there is to be a positive message from facing a pandemic it is sometimes, we all need a helping hand. I am completely humbled by that which has been given to me and hope to be of service in paying that forward to our community”.

Gail Dowd joined the Reading Public Schools in August of 2016. Prior to coming to the Reading Public Schools, she worked in the Financial Services Industry including public accounting at a big 6 accounting firm and then in the asset servicing industry at a custodial bank and asset management firm. Gail is a CPA and has over 25 years of accounting, finance, controls and regulatory experience with the S.E.C.

Danielle Collins began working for the Reading School District in October of 2019. Prior to coming to Reading she was the Director in Methuen and Chelmsford, Massachusetts. She has been a Director for ten years after working at a College and in Corporate Foodservice. Danielle is Treasurer for the School Nutrition Association of Massachusetts.

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