Workers at McLane Global package up meals that will be shipped out to students across the U.S., through a partnership with the Baylor University Collaborative. Two Maine schools have recently signed on to the program as well. Credit: Courtesy of McLane Global.

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MILFORD, Maine — Students of the Dr. Lewis S. Libby School in Milford and the West Bath ASU School will soon have free meals shipped to their front doors, supplied by an emergency meal program with Baylor University.

Through a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty in Texas is sending out free meals to students in rural communities across the United States whose schools have closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Only two school districts in Maine so far have been approved to take part in the program — Milford and the West Bath School, according to the program’s website. Another nine school districts are in the approval process, said Program Director Jeremy Everett.

To qualify, schools must have at least half of their students eligible for free or reduced meals, be closed for a minimum of four weeks and be considered a rural area by USDA standards.

Students enrolled in schools the Baylor program approves can sign up to get bi-weekly deliveries of meals until their school reopens or through the end of the year, if the school stays closed. The meals will be delivered directly to the families.

The prospect of returning to school before the end of the year is unlikely, after Maine’s Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin announced Tuesday night that schools should get comfortable with remote learning.

[Schools should plan on remote learning for rest of academic year, state says]

The school, which had shut its doors mid-March, had signed up 100 students by the last day of open enrollment, Dr. Lewis S. Libby School Principal Trish Clark said, although more families continued to register on their own until enrollment closed.

A total of 163 participants in Milford signed up for the program, Everett said Thursday morning.

Households with at least one student can also get meals for their siblings who don’t attend the school. The emergency meal service was created out of the Texas collaborative’s summer meals program to feed kids in rural communities with limited access to food options.

Realizing that school shutdowns could last more than a few weeks, the program has adapted to deliver meals to students for a longer term, Everett said. The program was recently approved to feed kids through June 30.

Milford’s administrators were applying to the Baylor Program by the end of the second week of the school shutting its doors, said Clark.

In a joint letter to parents on Friday, April 3, Clark and the school’s food service coordinator Donna Conary, encouraged families to sign up for the meal service before Wednesday, April 8 — giving them a five-day window to register.

Clark estimates that more than 50 percent of students enrolled at the school have reliable internet access, although the administration also reached out directly to families that couldn’t get online to help them enroll.

While Milford families had less than a week to sign up, West Bath School families were given nearly a month to enroll.

Stephanie Stambach, a child nutrition consultant with the Maine DOE who coordinates between schools and the Baylor program, said that approved schools can decide for themselves how long to keep that enrollment period open.

A week-long enrollment period is “pretty ideal,” Everett said, that way school districts can get meals to their students as early as possible.

“It hasn’t been a hard and fast endeavor,” Principal Clark said, noting that schools around the state are still trying to get a handle on new challenges as the pandemic unfolds.

Clark said that among her colleagues, there’s been much talk about how to continue serving their communities while the education system is racked with uncertainty and changing protocols — such as transitioning to online learning and providing meals to students outside of school.

“I began to hear just within [a] two-week time span that things were radically changing in communities — including our own.”

The pandemic has especially challenged schools’ food service programs, which have had to find new ways to get food to kids who aren’t getting breakfast and lunch from the cafeteria anymore.

External factors like transportation and internet access have also created obstacles for students who relied on school meals. It’s no longer as easy as “every kid who wants a meal, gets a meal,” Clark explained.

“This is blowing the doors off that paradigm,” she said.

The first shipments from Baylor University to Maine were supposed to go out on Wednesday, April 8, Clark said, although she didn’t have a date when families can expect their deliveries.

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