RICHMOND (KPIX) -- An East Bay school district is working better together in a first-of-its-kind program that it says could be a model for the state and nation.
The collaboration is feeding families and keeping local farmers and ranchers in business.
Some cars wait for hours as the families of 22,000 students in the West Contra Costa Unified School District line up at 15 different sites like Peres Elementary and Richmond High School to get boxes of free food.
But this weekly distribution is unique: for the first time, everything in the box is certified organic. It's a welcome gift for parents like Marcos Espinosa, who's out of work with eight people to feed.
"Everybody happy. I say thank you for everything," Espinosa said.
The all-organic food giveaway is the brainchild of Barbara Jellison, the school district's food service director. She has partnered with Judi Shils of the nonprofit Conscious Kitchen to produce the district's first all-organic school lunches. The project's success has them expanding and shifting the food supply chain.
"I'm hoping this model will be shared with many other districts," Jellison said.
Since November, the government-funded program has given away 2.6 million pounds of organic food, enough for 7.4 million meals.
School superintendent Matt Duffy says it's filling a critical need.
"More than two-thirds of our students receive free and reduced lunch," said Duffy. "The need is tremendous."
But families aren't the only winners. So are dozens of local suppliers, struggling to stay open in the pandemic.
The program buys directly from mostly-Bay Area organic farmers, ranchers, and others like Claire Herminjard of Marin Sun Farms and the brand Mindful Meats.
"In the span of two weeks, we lost 57 percent of our accounts," Herminjard said. "We were looking at each other like, 'How are we gonna survive this?'"
Then came a huge order for the school food boxes.
"We were supposed to deliver 30,000 pounds of beef in two weeks," she explained. "Our crew was just so excited."
Students not only get enough food for the week, their parents learn how to cook the items in the box.
School food service workers use Conscious Kitchen recipes and post demos online. And in the end, the innovative program keeps families and food suppliers smiling.
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