Schools handing out free meals while closed for coronavirus
As quickly as the small staff at work on the Loyal Public School on Monday could shuttle bagged meals from the kitchen to the elementary school front door on Monday, more people were there to pick them up. Food service director Jared Zemke had counted 255 free meals already for the day, and the cars were still coming up Central Street.
The Loyal Public School — like most others in the area — is giving away free meals for all local children ages 18 and under during the coronavirus school shutdown. Using federal funding for an extension of a summer program that allows schools to give meals to children, the district is providing substantive breakfast and lunch “combo bags” that are keeping kids fed and easing the financial strain on families that may be losing income as their jobs are temporarily cut back or lost due to the pandemic response.
Loyal had its free meal program operating already on March 18, just a day after the district closed its doors to students on orders from Gov. Tony Evers. Zemke said he and District Administrator Mark Lacke began talking about free food options “as soon as there was an indication that this was going to happen.”
Zemke’s food service staff comes to the kitchen each day and assembles bag lunches that include a breakfast item such as cereal, a cereal bar or a toaster pastry, and lunch items like turkey subs or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Staff members then take those bags to the town halls in Beaver, Loyal and Sherman, the trailer court on Loyal’s east side, and the elementary entrance to hand them out. All a family has to do to get the free meals for all the kids at home is drive up and tell the staffers how many bags they need.
Zemke said the school gave out about 180 meals a day last week, with a peak of 201 on March 19. That number was easily eclipsed on Monday, with the food staff bagging up the meals as fast as they could hand them out at the last stop for the day at the elementary front door. Planning for the number of meals has been one of the tricky parts, Zemke said, as no preordering is required. “We just wing it,” Zemke said. “We try
DEAN LESAR/STAFF PHOTO to plan heavy, and what meals we don’t need can carry over to the next day.”
Loyal’s meals have all been cold food so far, but Wednesday’s lunch entree was to be spaghetti. The staff would cook it and chill it, he said, and then send it home to kids for a quick microwave warm-up.
“We’re trying to expand a little more,” Zemke said. “I’m hoping to offer two of those (heated meals) each week.”
Zemke wants to diversify Loyal’s meals as much as he can partly to avoid supply issues. As other schools around the state are offering similar programs and most serving the same food, there could be problems if warehouse activity slows due to the virus spread.
“I think a lot of schools are ordering the same products right now,” he said.
Loyal was fairly well-prepared for the coronavirus response because it has offered free lunches to all kids each June for the last few years. To coincide with its 3-week summer school program, the district used federal funds for the free lunches for all kids. The school staff prepares about 150 lunches each day in June. The kitchen staff also added a daily cold sandwich line for daily meals during the school year, which was good preparation for this venture.
“We were kind of ready for this,” Zemke said.
With the district promoting the free meals on social media and sending reminder text messages to families, word of the meal program spread rapidly. The staff started with delivery to four sites, then added the mobile home park to get food to even more mouths.
“The numbers have been going up at each of the sites every single day,” Zemke said.
Zemke said it’s also boosted numbers as people have become aware that all kids — not just those eligible for free and reduced price meals during the school year — can get free combo bags. New families have been coming every day.
“There were people that were worried that this was more for needy families,” he said.
With the federal government fully reimbursing public schools for the free meal costs — “As long as we’re not putting T-bone steaks in there,” Zemke said — the district plans to continue to distribute them as long as school may be closed.
“We’re for sure going to do this the rest of the year, if we’re shut down,” Zemke said.
In addition to getting nutritious food to children at a stressful time for families, Zemke said the program has been a bright spot in an otherwise dark time.
“We’re superheroes,” he said of the public’s response to the free meals. “I feel like it’s bringing everybody together. I guess that’s the positive that comes out of this.”
Between handing out combo bags to groups of kids and families on Monday, grade 7-12 principal Chris Lindner said the meal program has been a good way for the school to help the community in a time of need.
“I hear a lot of good comments,” Lindner said. “Everybody’s thankful and appreciative.”