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School District and Harry Chapin team up to provide food to those who need it

By Staff | Oct 2, 2019

Food that went untouched in Lee County cafeterias across the district used to see wastebaskets at the end of the day. Now, it’s going to feed the hungry.

The School District of Lee County’s Food and Nutrition Services, under Director Lauren Couchois, has established a partnership with the Harry Chapin Food Bank to make sure extra food over long weekends and holiday breaks does not spoil, but is donated to those in Southwest Florida who may need it.

The district donated 600 pounds of food last Friday to Harry Chapin, helping to create nearly 500 meals for the hungry.

“I hate the phrase, but it’s literally a dream come true,” Couchois said. “We’ve been working on this for a few years. One of the pieces we’ve been missing was the logistic piece of how do we get it from the schools to a central location, and our warehouse staff stepped up.”

The Harry Chapin Food Bank sent a truck to the Food and Nutrition Services Warehouse in Fort Myers, where Couchois and members from Harry Chapin loaded the food.

“We love to be able to partner with everybody, and the school district has been fabulous,” said Richard LeBer, president and CEO at Harry Chapin. “We know that a lot of food gets wasted in schools. The food that’s provided for (students) doesn’t all get eaten, and inevitably there’s overstocks and other things that happen any time you’re feeding that many people. We’ve been talking to the school district for some time about getting set up and getting to this point. So we’re delighted to be able to do it.”

Food was collected at six Lee County Schools over a two-week period to donate to the food bank as a long weekend was coming up due to Rosh Hashanah.

The 600 pounds of food came from Trafalgar Elementary, Lehigh Elementary, Villas Elementary, Sunshine Elementary, Varsity Lakes Middle School and Tropic Isles Elementary.

LeBer said this is just the beginning.

“”Lee County Schools have over 80 schools in it, so we’re hopeful that as we figure out how this works and people get excited about the idea and word spreads, that eventually we’ll be doing this on a repeating, regular basis, and it’ll be truckloads at a time,” LeBer said.

Items donated included milk, cheese sticks, yogurt, produce, cereal, crackers and other non-perishable items, including those from the “share table.”

“A share table was the first step that we took to combat food waste,” Couchois said. “We always hate to hear, ‘Why are you feeding the trash can instead of the students?’ I hate hearing that because that is not the goal.”

Students are required to take certain items on the menu any given day, and sometimes those food items are not desired. A share table helps mitigate waste.

“So a share table is something that the students can take anything that they’re not going to eat, put it on the share table for another student to take should they choose to do so,” Couchois said. “However at the end of service, there might still be some things on the share table. Those are the items we collect for donation to make sure they’re getting out to the community instead of the trash cans.”

So, who is seeing the benefit of the food donated to Harry Chapin?

“We have 150 different agencies we work with,” LeBer said. “This food is going back to our warehouse. We will sort through all of it and put it in different categories and we’ll combine it with food that we get from other sources and then we’ll put it in our computer system so that they can all order what they want. It will go out on shipments early next week.”

Couchois said each school is focusing on shelf-stable items that do not need to be refrigerated for donations — though they do donate items such as produce and milk when a long weekend is on the horizon or when applicable.

“No matter what we collect for donation, it’s set aside,” Couchois said. “It is kept separate from our regular stock. It is clearly marked for donation — ‘Harry Chapin’ — and the date that they are putting it there for donation. They’re kept in our cooler, at temp, and monitored.”

Couchois said that’s how they ensure they are not keeping items for too long.

The district even made a small donation of refrigerated items to Harry Chapin the week before last, because some items simply could not wait.

“The goal is to try to get these big long weekends, where things might not last,” Couchois said. “But we have donations more frequently than just when the long weekends hit.”

The goal moving forward is to get more schools involved so that the district can provide a larger return to Harry Chapin. The more food donated, the more mouths will be fed.

“The schools are going to see what a great thing that this is and realize that no matter how small of a donation they have to make, that small donation and another school’s small donation, totals up to one big donation,” Couchois said. “I think right now, we’ve got to get people over the fear of that, ‘I only have a little bit to donate, and that might not make that much of a difference.’ However, when all of our schools come together, it’s definitely a good sized donation.”

The Harry Chapin Food Bank is the largest hunger relief network in Southwest Florida, serving Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Glades and Hendry counties.

In fiscal year 2018-19, Harry Chapin Food Bank distributed nearly 26.7 million pounds of food and other grocery items. The food, valued at $43.2 million, is the equivalent of 22.2 million meals.

For additional information, visit www.HarryChapinFoodBank.org.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj