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A life of feeding children

The Cumberland community was saddened by the recent death of William “Bill” Brandt Jr., former school nutrition coordinator for Cumberland County Public Schools (CuCPS).

Brandt, 58, of Farmville, passed away Aug. 25, leaving generations of schoolchildren impacted by his generosity and kind spirit.

Brandt’s culinary career began in the form of service for his country. He came from a military family and felt called to serve, but also possessed a desire to attend culinary school. Unable to afford the schooling, he instead decided to join the U.S. Coast Guard and learn the culinary trade there.

He was very proud of his 20 years with the Coast Guard, and served on several ships. However, he was most proud of serving at U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as serving Rear Adm. Joel D. Sipes and family at Hospital Point Lighthouse in Beverly, Massachusetts.

After retiring from the Coast Guard as a Chief Petty Officer, Brandt settled in Farmville and became production manager for the Longwood Dining Facility before being recruited as the school nutrition coordinator at Cumberland.

“Here is where Bill was really able to shine,” his brother John Brandt recalled.

According to CuCPS Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones, as the school nutrition coordinator, Brandt oversaw the daily operations of the school nutrition programs at Cumberland Elementary, Cumberland Middle and Cumberland High Schools. He was instrumental in Cumberland being one of the first school divisions in the commonwealth to participate in the Breakfast after the Bell program.

His work at CuCPS, according to John Brandt, transformed the cafeteria into a school food service that was the envy of the state.

“He was able to take advantage of many government programs to make sure that the kids in Cumberland were getting fresh foods as opposed to processed foods that many other schools were offering,” John Brandt said. “He joined a co-op to keep food costs lower while maintaining a quality product, and he always solicited input from faculty and students to try and make things more enjoyable. One of the last programs that he instituted was to make all students in the elementary school get free breakfast and lunch.”

An active member and participant of the Region 8 School Nutrition meetings as well as the Virginia Department of Education meetings, Brandt implemented grab and go breakfasts and breakfast in the classroom, assisted with the application process for numerous grants associated with school nutrition, worked to ensure food offered to students was appealing and was constantly researching how to take school nutrition to the next level.

When schools closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brandt swiftly met with his team to develop a plan to make sure meals could be served to students beginning the following week.

“Mr. Brandt embraced the challenge and made it happen,” Jones said. “He would say ‘we need to feed the children.’”

In one of his last contributions to the school before his passing, Brandt, according to Jones, had recently researched and implemented a new “vacuum sealing” machine that allowed meals for students to be more easily stored for families.

Brandt immensely loved to cook for his family at regular Sunday dinners. He was also an avid beekeeper who often spoke to students about his bees and the process for retrieving the honey.

“Bill was an incredible pioneer for school nutrition in Cumberland and across Virginia,” Catherine Spacciapoli, program manager at No Kid Hungry Virginia, said. “Cumberland County was one of the first school divisions to adopt Breakfast after the Bell. As a result, Cumberland saw huge gains in school breakfast participation and remained a model for how other schools across the state could see success with innovative approaches to school meals.”

“Mr. Brandt’s death leaves a void,” Jones said, “however, his commitment and passion for ensuring students had access to food will live on. He will always be remembered as being dedicated and always willing to take on the ‘good’ fight.”

“He always felt that anyone who came through the lunch line deserved the very best,” John Brandt said. “He refused to serve anything that he, himself, would not eat, and when something didn’t turn out right or someone was upset, he tended to take it a bit personally. The cafeteria workers, a.k.a. his ‘lunch ladies,’ were very special to him. They worked very hard for him and he recognized that, and took care of them the best he could. He considered them as part of his extended family.”