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Chefs, Restaurants Lend Hand to Feeding Kids

WHEELING — A unique concept that harkens back to scratch-made school lunches is now feeding local school children at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program – Restaurants to Schools — is a collaborative effort among Grow Ohio Valley, Ohio County Schools, West Virginia Northern Community College, several restaurants and chefs and local farmers.

Danny Swan, GrowOV executive director, said the program “provides restaurant-quality meals to local kids who lack equitable access to nutritious foods.”

Not only does the Restaurant to Schools program provide healthy food access to at-risk children, it also supports local restaurants that are struggling to keep businesses afloat and staff employed while indoor dining is not permitted, Swan said..

“The program was piloted by Public Market Chef Melissa Rebholz, Sarah Lydick from Sarah’s on Main, and Mitchell Haddad from Later Alligator in partnership with WVNCC, which provided crucial kitchen space and equipment. Vagabond Kitchen and Whisk/Avenue Eats are also preparing meals. As the program expands, GrowOV is in the process of partnering with additional local restaurants,” Swan said.

GrowOV AmeriCorps volunteers distribute the meals Monday-Thursday from 4:30-6 p.m. outside Madison, Wheeling Middle School, and Bridge Street Middle School. All children under 18 are welcome to participate and encouraged to pick up meals at the location closest to their homes. Parents and guardians may pick up meals on behalf of children.

The program will last at least until the end of May, and possibly through the summer pending new COVID-19 developments.

GrowOV and its partners provide healthy meals for pickup based on the schools’ previous participation in the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Feeding Program, which continues to cover about 75% of the cost of each meal, Swan noted.

The remaining 25% of the cost comes from community partners and donations from people who want to ensure that Ohio County school children receive the nutrition they need, Swan said.

In developing this program, the chefs discussed planning meals that are nutritious, high quality and affordable to prepare. Local farmers are in the mix as well. Swan said they purchase items from the local farm community – a positive for everyone.

Swan said they work with Renee Griffin, child nutrition director at Ohio County Schools, in planning and distributing the meals. “Renee and everybody at the school system have been great to work with. We all want the same thing for the kids.”

“We’re always looking for ways to reach more children with quality nutrition. This allows us to do that while supporting local restaurants: a win-win,” Griffin said.

Chef Chris Kefauver from WVNCC’s Culinary Arts Program has been providing logistical support and oversight. “We want to make sure every kid has access to nutritious meals that taste good too, which is what our local restaurants excel at. We’re deploying our state-of-the-art teaching kitchen to provide space for local restaurants to produce these meals. We’ve gotten great feedback.”

According to Sarah Lydick from Sarah’s on Main, “Restaurants-to-Schools is helping local businesses keep employees working and keep the lights on, and let us do what we do best: cook great food for our community.”

“These are meals I feel good feeding to my own young children,” Swan commented. “It’s more important than ever that we all take care of our immune systems, and that starts with healthy eating.”

Swan said he knows of no other area that offers this type of collaboration that involves local restaurants. He said the program shows the resiliency of Ohio Valley residents during a time of an uncertain economy.

The meals are diverse and represent the talents of local chefs. Menu items have varied from “Mediterranean Chicken” to “3-Bean Chili.”

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