Filling the food gap

Feed the Need is helping Florida school districts expand their grab-and-go meal programs to include children and families who sometimes fall through the cracks.
Photograph courtesy of Eccleston Elementary

As Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., worked to distribute to-go meals to students after the COVID-19 pandemic forced its buildings to close, it found that some students weren’t able to access the meals due to their location. As a remedy, the district partnered with 4R Restaurant Group and its 4Roots Foundation to help reach students it could not.

“Some of [the students] were in a homeless center or somewhere in an area in town where there just wasn't a school or a point that the school could put resources to reach these students,” says John Rivers, CEO and founder of 4R Restaurant Group and the 4Roots Foundation. “So we stepped in and we started filling those gaps.”  

When 4Roots began distributing meals, though, it saw a larger problem: The family members accompanying students to pick up food were often also hungry. 

This led the restaurant team to launch Feed the Need Florida, a program that takes donated ingredients from vendors and local institutions, such as resorts, and turns them into family meals that can be picked up at school meal sites.

feed the need FloridaPhotograph courtesy of Eccleston Elementary

“Now, when the students pull through, we're able to give students a meal, but on a daily basis, we're also giving out 2,000 family meals,” Rivers says. 

Working with restaurants 

Today, Feed the Need has grown to include meal distribution at school districts in several counties throughout the state. To keep up with demand, the organization teamed up with more than 220 restaurant brands, which prepare and distribute family meals at their local school feeding sites.

Restaurants who partner with the organization are given a 20-page training manual that outlines all of the regulations and approved meals. Some also come on-site for a day to get a firsthand look at how the meals are distributed. 

To keep everyone safe, Feed the Need team members wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including hand-sewn masks donated by a group of 4Roots employees’ moms. The team also uses a sheet tray to transfer meals to families without contact: “You put [the meals] on a sheet tray and you turn, and you put the sheet tray in front of them and they lift it off the sheet tray,” Rivers says. 

Making a meal 

The meals served to students and their families depend on what ingredients are donated each week, Rivers says, but generally include rice or pasta. 

“The first week, we did black beans and rice with, we had pork, so we did like a mojo pork,” he says. “Last week, we got half a crop of tomatoes, so we're creating a lot of red sauce. It’s a creamy red sauce over linguini with roasted vegetables and beautiful broccoli in it.”

Photograph courtesy of Eccleston ElementaryPhotograph courtesy of Eccleston Elementary

The group is also now working with an organization called Feeding Florida to help streamline produce delivery straight from farms to Feed the Need’s restaurant partners so that it can be turned into family meals instead of going to waste in the field.  

When the team gets large donations of produce, it sometimes sets up a “farmers market” area at the feeding sites. “We literally hand them a bag full of pineapple and oranges and broccoli and stuff like that,” Rivers says. “So on big days, they can come through and they'll actually have three stops: They have the school meal, they get the produce from the farmers market and then they get the family meals.”

Rivers says he has seen such a need for the program that he hopes to make Feed the Need a permanent fixture in the state long after the threat of COVID-19 has passed. 

“To me, you just can't stop it now,” he says. “You know when COVID is over, we've got to figure out a way to continue to feed these people.”


More from our partners