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‘We found our inner calling.’ This Durham restaurant has served 5,000 student meals a week during COVID-19

This is part of a series featuring student voices. Read more articles written by high school and college student authors here.

Durham cafe owner Dorian Bolden says he is used to “pivoting” when resources are limited. When COVID-19 became a reality, “pivoting” meant feeding thousands of local public school students.

Beyu Caffe is just one of dozens of local restaurants that have worked alongside volunteers, school nutrition employees, and community partners to feed Durham Public Schools (DPS) students since school buildings closed due to COVID-19 on March 16.

“We found our inner calling,” Bolden said. “We really enjoy this social, kind of socioeconomic piece of it, where you actually get to do good work while still being in business.”

According to Bolden, Beyu has produced as many as 5,000 meals a week in partnership with Durham FEAST, a meal distribution project that was started in April by the Durham Public Schools Foundation, Food Insight Group, and The Durham Hotel. Using federal reimbursement dollars, county funds, and community donations, the project allows local farms and restaurants to sustain their employees while producing meals for students. Durham FEAST established 24 distribution sites across Durham.

Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet School, one Durham Public School’s meal program distribution sites. Kaitlyn Busch/Pirates Hook

School board member Natalie Beyer volunteered at the Southern High School site. 

“It was high quality, healthy food for children and families,” Beyer said. “Whatever was in season was also given out to people, and I hope that was a way for them to enjoy fresh produce that they love, but also, some children might have tried things for the first time that they loved as well.”

Masked, gloved, and six feet apart, volunteers served produce, shelf-stable food, and meals prepared by local restaurants to hundreds of families daily at this site alone.

“The amazing volunteers, if there was extra food left at the end of the day, would load it in their own vehicles and take it into the Durham Housing Authority communities and distribute it more widely,” Beyer said.

The DPS Summer Feeding Program took over operation of the 24 distribution sites on June 8.  Program development specialist Linda Sky Harris said that because families were already familiar with the Durham FEAST sites and schedule, only the menu changed. 

Harris is also a former school cafeteria manager.

“I think that the children having a meal that is familiar to them sort of helps them as well,” Harris said. “Even the little milk carton … It helps them, I believe. It’s the small things that really just reassure them that we’ll be back.”

The Summer Feeding Program opened an additional site at W.G. Pearson Elementary School on June 29 in order to supply local summer camps with meals.

Durham FEAST continues to supplement the Summer Feeding Program by delivering meals to more than 1,000 students who cannot travel to sites. Beyu still produces around 1,400 meals a week for Durham FEAST, Bolden said.

“I think because of COVID and because of what we’ve been able to do with Durham FEAST, we really were able to identify our core purpose, our mission statement,” Bolden said.

“That is to inspire and uplift communities through Black excellence,” he said.

Bolden said he has since founded the Feed DURM Coalition, a group of restaurants that are now partnering with four local Title I charter schools to address food insecurity within their school populations: Global Scholars Academy, Maureen Joy Charter School, Carter Community Charter School, and Central Park School for Children. Feed DURM began providing meals for 150 families on July 12.

Alongside these school-based initiatives, Durham County supports other local food resources that have existing ties with the community.

“While we are not running feeding, we have so many food resources and nonprofits who are already in contact with people,” said Donna Rewalt, Durham County food security coordinator and director of cooperative extensions.

“They know their communities. They know how to feed them,” she said.

County funding has been provided to nonprofits such as End Hunger Durham, Meals on Wheels, and El Centro Hispano. The county food security task force also connects local food resources with volunteers, grants, and educational materials for distribution.

At Durham FEAST pick-up sites, information about the online census and voter registration was made available to families. In May and June, all Durham students who qualify for free or reduced lunch received SNAP funding. The county worked with the DPS Public Information Office to educate families on these benefits.

Durham county commissioners have also committed to funding a year-round food security coordinator. Rewalt pointed out that people in Durham have been hungry since before the pandemic struck.

“We really, I think, would really quickly recognize the need for the county to be a bigger partner in the community for feeding people,” she said. “I just think it’s wonderful our commissioners were so supportive of that.”

Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet School, one Durham Public School’s meal program distribution sites Kaitlyn Busch/Pirates Hook

Beyer emphasized that DPS was one of the first districts in the state to provide free breakfast for every child. The district also piloted dinner programs at several school sites this year.

“We know that our role as a school district in feeding children is foundational,” Beyer said. “But as we go forward with this pandemic and the negative economic impact … I think it’s going to be more imperative for us to continue to keep food security and health needs of children and families at the forefront of our decision making.”

One thing that everyone involved in feeding Durham students can agree upon is that it has been a community effort.

“I just really, really, really was amazed at the heart and depth of care that this community displayed and continues to display,” Beyer said.

Kaitlyn Busch

Kaitlyn Busch is a rising senior at Riverside High School in Durham and an editor of The Pirates’ Hook student newspaper. She is a member of the cross country and track teams and hopes to study education and public policy in college.