Side benefit: Trade dispute means more free food for schools

Claysburg-Kimmel Elementary second graders and Aunnika Imler (center), 7, and Lawson Black, (right), 8, grab some peaches during lunch on Friday. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

President Donald Trump’s trade disputes may benefit area schools.

This fall, U.S. school cafeterias are expecting shipments of free food courtesy of Trump’s trade disputes.

The products are coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is giving away the $1.2 billion in food it’s buying to help farmers hurt by trade disputes.

The USDA said schools are only getting a tiny slice of trade mitigation foods, accounting for a majority of the $27 million of products ordered for child nutrition programs. But at a national convention for school cafeteria employees this summer, agency officials noted the program is expected to continue with additional items.

However, many area school district officials said they have not been notified about the program for the upcoming school year.

The state Department of Agriculture will be distributing the products.

The department is expected to distribute six truckloads of sliced ham, five truckloads of pulled pork and one load of the “Pork Picnic” for further processing into three varieties of pork patties, said Shannon Powers, state Agriculture Department spokeswoman.

“Each school that receives USDA Foods from us will be offered a share of the products based on the percentage of total meals their school system serves,” Powers said.

Schools should be notified by the end of this week about the program, said Caryn Long Earl, the department’s Bureau of Food Assistance director.

“All Pennsylvania schools participating in the National School Lunch Program will receive an email from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture letting them know that we have ordered several products for use in school meals through the USDA Trade Mitigation program. We will let them know that these products will be arriving between September 2019 and December 2019,” Earl said. “Products will be delivered to our four state contracted warehouses, and each school will be offered a proportional ‘share’ of these foods based on the total number of meals they serve in an average school year. Once those products have arrived at the contract distributors, we will provide allocation information to each school, providing specifics on the exact product and the amount being made available to them. If a school chooses not to accept their share, those ‘refused’ products will be offered for other schools to claim.”

The free food is important to area school districts.

“Commodity food is integral to our operation. Almost 20 percent of the food we serve is provided by the free programs, including a significant portion of our fresh fruit and vegetables,” said Susan Franks, who oversees cafeteria services for the Altoona Area School District.

“We always welcome the opportunity to reduce expenses in any form as long as our standards are met,” said Kimberly VanGorder, Bellwood-Antis School District business manager/ board secretary. “The majority of food service operations in schools are not self-supporting, including ours, and do require additional funding from the general fund to operate. Offsetting expenses with donations of any kind, allows us to enhance conditions or offer other choices to our students.”

Tyrone Area School District will be appreciative of any additional USDA commodities made available to it.

“We will make every attempt to accept and use those,” Business Manager John Clark said. “We would certainly accept product not taken by other schools that is acceptable to our students. In most cases, the USDA commodities are wholesome and very reliably sourced.”

The financial benefit to school districts is that the cost for products is limited to the related shipping costs. The net savings can help the bottom line of the cafeterias and a help to hold down cafeteria meal prices.

Claysburg-Kimmel also is looking forward to the additional commodities.

“We are always excited to receive free food from the federal government. Over the years, the Department of Agriculture has always been very supportive of the school lunch program,” Superintendent Darren McLaurin said.

More free food may be on the way.

“USDA has announced that there will be a second year of trade mitigation, with plans to purchase an additional $1.4 billion worth of surplus agricultural products for distribution through the Emergency Food Assistance Program and National School Lunch Program and other nutrition assistance programs,” Powers said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.