The Land: ‘Farmers to Families’ program provides healthy food during tough times.

May 27, 2020

The Land: ‘Farmers to Families’ program provides healthy food during tough times.

#TheLand is a series telling the stories about local agriculture. It is a presentation of Peterson Farms, Inc.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

SHELBY — You could not meet a stronger advocate for keeping struggling families fed than Shelby Public Schools Food Service Director Mary Rose Vanas.

And during an unprecedented time of economic and health hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mary Rose is even harder at work than she normally is.

Shelby Public Schools Food Service Director Mary Rose Vanas.

Like other Oceana County school districts’ food service programs, Mary Rose and her team have been working hard to distribute healthy, home cooked meals to all families in the school district every day during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mary Rose promotes that “free for all” food programs reduce the stigma of being from a low-income family. “It takes away the stigma of only poor people eating.”

“No child should be excluded from food,” Mary Rose said. “We want every child to have an equal start. It’s harder to teach a child who is not fed.”

The Shelby Public Schools Food Service Department recently took on an added role that puts more healthy food on local families’ tables by utilizing fresh foods from local farms.

Due to COVID-19, food service businesses are closed to dining, resulting in food surpluses for farmers. “The stores can’t take all of the food, because people aren’t coming in the stores and not as many people can be in the stores. The cost of food has risen astronomically in the stores.”

With Shelby being designated as a US Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box Program distribution site, free fresh fruits, vegetables and cheeses are being distributed to local food pantries and places of worship.

“As part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program Secretary (Ervin “Sonny”) Perdue announced on April 17 that USDA is exercising authority under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to purchase and distribute agricultural products to those in need,” states the USDA web site. “Through this program, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is partnering with national, regional and local suppliers, whose workforce has been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels and other food service businesses, to purchase up to $3 billion in fresh produce, dairy and meat products. The program will purchase $461 million in fresh fruits and vegetables, $317 million in a variety of dairy products, $258 million in meat products and $175 million in a combination box of fresh produce, dairy or meat products. Suppliers will package these products totaling $1.2 billion into family-sized boxes, then transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need from May 15 through June 30, 2020. AMS may elect to extend the period of performance of the contracts, via option periods, dependent upon program success and available remaining funds, up to $3 billion.”

“The food service department, in partnership with Van Eerden Food Service (based in Grand Rapids), sets up distribution for local food pantries and organizations which feed those families who are in need,” said Mary Rose. “This farm-to-families food box program will continue until the end of June. We will receive more on Friday to help with other organizations and to feed our weekend feeding program for our kids.”

“We have partnered with local food pantries and faith-based organizations.” Volunteers gathered for the first distribution last Friday, May 22, and will continue to meet at the school campus every Friday. Volunteers are Shelby school staff members, students, church members and community members. “They’re wonderful,” she said.

It is not a distribution open to the public, but rather is aimed at distributing food to helpful organizations, which in turn distribute the healthy foods to local families.

“We have 750 fruit boxes, 750 vegetable boxes and 750 cheese boxes,” said Mary Rose during last Friday’s distribution. The food is distributed county-wide. “There is a wide group of eclectic community members being able to come and get what they need.”

The food comes from Oceana County farms as well as other farms throughout Michigan.

The Ireland native has worked as a food service director in both Ireland and the US for 30 years and has been the food service director at Shelby for eight years.

Feeding others is her passion. “I really feel it’s God’s direction for me. I love working here. I love kids.”

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