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April 13, 2020
On the Front Lines of Feeding Kids While Schools are Closed

Project Bread has been working with the Massachusetts Department of Education and local partners to help make sure kids are able to get school meals during closures. Here we get a sense of what this looks like on the ground as we hear from the front line heroes keeping families fed in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By March 12, many schools realized that some kind of closure would be taking place. Little did they know then that schools would be closed for over a month and counting.

For the last 20 years, Project Bread has helped to set up, run, and advertise summer meal sites where kids who rely on school meals for their nutrition can continue to get breakfast and lunch throughout the summer.

When we heard that schools would be closing, we knew immediately that kids and families struggling with hunger would need the kind of sustainable and large scale access to food that federal nutrition programs provide, and that we had a wealth of practical experience that could be crucial for making this happen.

Project Bread teamed up the Massachusetts Department of Education and other local partners and worked together to create alternative ways of getting school meals to kids during the COVID-19 crisis. As of this writing, there are over 1,300 sites across the Commonwealth that can be located through the map Project Bread hosts on our website.

The Need Keeps Increasing

While every meal site is unique to the community in which it's located, one thing each has in common is that the number of kids and families they're feeding has continued to increase.

For instance, in one week the Marlborough School District went from a few hundred families to almost 600. In the first week, The Marlborough School District ended up serving 6,600 meals.

In the Waltham School District, April Liles, Child Nutrition Director, said that on April 8 "we served 7000 meals in just a two hour window through an organized car line and walk up system at the McDevitt middle school."

Like all school meal sites, Liles told us that "safety precautions are in place as our team is working with masks, gloves and at recommended distances during distribution. In an effort to minimize exposure for our staff and the community, we are now offering breakfast and lunch meal picks ups at one location for the entire week."

Above: Project Bread's partnership with Waltham Public Schools helps serve thousands of school meals to kids and families each week.

Adaptability is the Key

Project Bread's Chef Sam Icklan worked with the Chicopee school district in those first few weeks and said that their original plan on Friday, March 13, was just to get through the next few days.

"We arrived at the cafeteria at 6AM and managed to produce breakfasts and lunches for Monday and Tuesday all in one morning." Chef Sam helped them reestablish their production method for something completely new as they moved out chairs and set up lines of tables. "We set out each part of the meals and sent them down the lines." 

Midway through that first week, Chef Sam said he realized that schools were going to be closed for a month "and there was all this fresh produce that needed to be used, so I worked with staff to create entree sized salads to use lettuce, broccoli, eggs, salad dressing, and so on. We offered as extra to the meals and were even able to offer it to parents so it didn’t end up in compost."

As the numbers of kids and families coming to the meal site kept increasing, Chef Sam and the cafeteria staff kept refining, going from one delivery day to three, and then adding a Friday so meals for the weekends could be handed out. "It was the super flexibility and adaptability of the staff and nutrition directors that ultimately got everything off the ground and running in a way that meets the real needs of the community."

Above: Project Bread's Chef Sam helped Chicopee School District prepare to serve meals on the go.

The Cafeteria Staff Are Heroes

The key takeaway from everyone involved in setting up and running the school meal sites across the state is the courage and selflessness of the front line cafeteria workers.

As April Liles, the Child Nutrition Director from Waltham, puts it: "It's extremely important to recognize the heroes who work at Waltham School Nutrition who have been showing up to make this happen. Even in unprecedented times, these special and selfless people care deeply about feeding children and nourishing our youth. It's who they are and their passion for making a difference is relentless." 

Chef Sam echoes her sentiments: "Food service staff need to be appreciated. I can’t say enough about how these folks stepped up and continued to show up every day. They are superheroes. I have all the admiration in the world and am so grateful for them, and for being able to be part of taking care of kids with them." 

Author(s): Project Bread

Filed under: News and Events, Children and Schools, General, For the Media