Originally published Wednesday, October 21st 2020
The LittleJohn Produce Box Project was born out of the effects of COVID-19 — it was a response to the mass lay-offs, the economic threats to small businesses, and the growing need to stay out of grocery stores. The project offers produce boxes for purchase, but the real relief comes from the 1300+ boxes that have been donated to laid-off service employees and to families in need since April 2020.
Many of these donated boxes have been received by families from Title I schools in the Denver area. The boxes are hand delivered to students’ families by the wonderful teachers and volunteers who dedicate their time to these communities. I had the opportunity to speak to two of those volunteers about their experiences.
Cynthia Eames is currently a “parent and community liaison” for Valverde Elementary School in Denver. 97% of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch, so when the school closed in the spring because of COVID, it had a devastating effect on many of the families. According to Cynthia, this has been the biggest challenge for the students, as they are unable to access the food and resources they would normally receive from their school on a daily basis. Additionally, Valverde is “a hub for families to come together, help each other, and uplift one another,” but this sense of community became difficult to maintain once the physical space of the school closed down.
It was another volunteer from Valverde who initially connected Cynthia to the LittleJohn Produce Box Project. Since then, families from the school have been able to receive fresh produce and eggs, which allows them to “save their money for other items needed to help feed their children and put healthy meals on the table.” The produce boxes alleviate some of the stress felt by families whose children typically get up to ten meals a week from the school.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the families of Valverde Elementary School have retained that community spirit so central to the school. “Our families that receive the boxes are very grateful[...]They understand that the box of produce is a blessing and they make sure to share with their families and friends as well as with neighbors,” says Cynthia.
So what does the upcoming school year look like for Valverde and its students? According to Cynthia, there are still many obstacles ahead. “Families are getting back into the workforce slowly but the kids will still be at home trying to plug into their virtual classrooms,” she says. With parents returning to work, the students still need access to nutritious food throughout the day. Also, as the transition back to in-person learning begins, families will need “proper PPE, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer” as well.
I also had the opportunity to hear from Hannah Williams, a kindergarten teacher and Senior Team Lead at the Math and Science Leadership Academy in Denver. Hannah, who has been with MSLA for four years, first heard about the LittleJohn Produce Box Project through a Denver 7 article. After seeing that the project donates boxes to local schools, Hannah “reached out asking if they were taking on additional schools in the community.”
Many of the MSLA parents are considered essential workers, according to Hannah, “so it has been very difficult for them to balance their jobs as well as helping their kids with academics.” Additionally, many of the students had been receiving fresh produce and free meals through school, which means that the school closure had significantly restricted their access to healthy food.
Some of this stress was significantly alleviated once MSLA families began receiving LittleJohn produce box donations. Hannah says, “The parents are very excited and motivated to come pick up the boxes[...]there is something to be said for giving students nutrient dense items that we know they may not always have available.” The families of MSLA are “incredibly hard working,” and the school’s community is always looking for a way to ease some of the parents’ burdens.
Aside from food donations, the school’s students are also in need of additional Wifi hotspots, since their classrooms are now completely virtual for the 2020-2021 school year and many of the families do not have access to reliable Wifi. In addition, as the winter months are approaching, students could always use clothing appropriate for cold weather, particularly jackets.
Looking forward to the rest of the 2020-2021 school year, a few changes are being made to MSLA’s school food programs. “The students will still have access to free lunch from Valverde, but the entire family will not be able to be serviced,” says Hannah. Luckily, with the continuation of the produce box donations, the items in the boxes will be able to supplement the families’ meals and account for the reductions to free lunches.
The LittleJohn Produce Box Project is so grateful to get to work with these local schools, but we wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of these two stellar women. As my final question to Hannah and Cynthia, I asked them:
If you could be any fruit or vegetable, which would you be and why?
Cynthia said, “I think a Pineapple because it’s prickly on the outside yet pretty and sweet and bright yellow on the inside. Haha.”
Hannah said, “Probably a tomato because they can be so unique and versatile. They also pair well with cheese and bread which are my favorite.”