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Families benefit from USDA food box program
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Cathy Ford helps hand out one of 240 food boxes distributed on Friday at Wakefield Elementary School (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

Turlock Unified School District has already make it a point to provide nutritious meals for its students during the coronavirus pandemic, and on Friday the Child Nutrition program added to that effort by becoming the first on the West Coast to distribute food boxes from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program.


TUSD partnered with Ag Link, Inc., a local product distributor out of Ballico, to put together 240 food boxes which were handed out to families at Wakefield Elementary School in addition to the grab-and-go meals the district continues to provide. Ag Link utilized products from local growers to create the boxes, which will be distributed at Wakefield, Pitman High School and Dutcher Middle School every Tuesday starting May 19.


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Food Service Lead DeAnna Millentree, Food Service Manager Cathy Ford, Antonio Cervantes of Tri-Tipery, Director of Child Nutrition Jennifer Lew-Vang and Ag Link, Inc. owner Rob Nairn pause for a photo with the first boxes from the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box Program to be distributed on the West Coast (ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal).

USDA is exercising authority under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to purchase and distribute up to $3 billion of agricultural products to those in need, partnering with regional and local distributors, like Ag Link, whose workforce has been significantly impacted by the closure of many restaurants, hotels and other food service entities, to purchase fresh produce, dairy and meat to fill the boxes. Items from the program are then provided to food banks, community and faith-based organizations and other nonprofits.


“It feels great to help,” Ag Link owner Rob Nairn said. “The program isn’t just helping families in need, but it’s also helping distributors and farmers. The intent of this is to help everybody in the supply chain and get the economy stimulated again.”


Friday’s boxes distributed at Wakefield held a combination of fresh produce and chicken cooked at the Tri-Tipery in Ballico which had been chilled and vacuum sealed. According to Antonio Cervantes of Tri-Tipery, the restaurant was able to hire eight additional cooks to help barbecue the meat and the program’s funding also allowed them to buy two new smokers to get the job done.


Some of the produce in the boxes included stone fruit from Sierra Sun in Sanger, tomatoes from Lipman Family Farms in Stockton, onions and potatoes from Onions, Etc. in Stockton and sweet potatoes from Doreva Produce in Livingston.


Irma Ramirez and her daughter Gabriella, who attends Walnut Elementary, have already benefited from TUSD’s grab-and-go meals and showed up on Friday to get their food box.


“I’ve always had to pay for lunches for my girls, but I didn’t know about this until her teacher reached out and told me. I’m taking advantage of it because every little bit helps during this time,” Ramirez said. “I’m so grateful for these food boxes because you don’t know what tomorrow might bring — or not bring.”


TUSD’s new Director of Child Nutrition Jennifer Lew-Vang said she jumped at the opportunity for the district to once again lead the way when it comes to feeding families. In 2015, TUSD was selected to be a part of the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program and received the very first pallet of oranges from a local farmer. Five years later, the district is still utilizing local products as the first to receive the USDA Farmers to Families food boxes on the West Coast.


“This is a great opportunity that is like a continuation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program that provides fresh, local produce to our children, but also adds the benefit to support local farmers during unprecedented times with a COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. TUSD was very fortunate to keep our Child Nutrition program operating through COVID-19 and we will continue to serve meals while promoting safe and healthy procedures,” Lew-Vang said.


Lew-Vang took over as Director of Child Nutrition just 11 days before the pandemic began and while it’s been an interesting start, she said she is “lucky to have a great team with one common goal in mind and that is to ensure all children in need are fed.”


She credited former director Scott Soiseth with the program’s success over the years and hopes that despite these unprecedented times, Child Nutrition can continue to grow and evolve.


“Scott Soiseth was a great innovator and leader and he built a great foundation for this program,” Lew-Vang said. “For me to step in and have that support has been great and I want to help keep it growing and to build upon that success. That’s our goal.”