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School buses left Hampden Academy on Friday morning with bagged meals and milk crates loaded onto seats that students haven’t occupied in more than two months.
On its route around Hampden, one bus stopped every few minutes, and masked and gloved Regional School Unit 22 employees stepped out to leave a week’s worth of bagged breakfasts and lunches along with a half-gallon of milk outside homes.
An hour later, Sarah Nickerson and her three kids pulled up in front of the main entrance of Brewer Community School where five school employees, including Food Services Director Sandra Hodgins, ran bags of food to drivers.
“It’s something the kids always look forward to,” said Nickerson, who lives in Eddington. “They do an unboxing, and they talk about the food they got.”
When schools closed in mid-March due to the coronavirus, they rushed to put a new system in place to feed children. They switched within days from serving meals at school to delivering meals to students at their homes, distributing them at designated pickup sites or some combination of both.
Nickerson and her kids, who attend Brewer Community School, have driven to Brewer every day to pick up food since school closed.
“It’s nice for the kids to see some familiar faces from schools,” she said. “It’s helped us maintain a routine during this time, and it’s been an amazing resource for our family.”
As food insecurity rises during the pandemic, early data show that Maine schools are more or less keeping up with meal distribution while the buildings are shut down and kids are participating in remote learning at home. Schools served only 3 percent fewer meals to students last month than they did in April 2019, according to the Maine Department of Education, though the number of meals served can vary sharply district to district.
Schools handed out more than 1 million bagged lunches last month, compared with about 1.4 million served in April 2019. But they have served more breakfasts this year — 1.1 million last month, up from 800,000 in April 2019.
“It’s nothing like we had ever done before,” said Hodgins, the food services director in Brewer. “The first couple of weeks I didn’t sleep because I was worried if we have everything we need.”
The comparison isn’t perfect. The total number of meals served in April 2019 includes meals for which students paid. The bagged breakfasts and lunches schools are handing out this spring are all free, and schools give them to whoever needs one, even if students aren’t enrolled in the district from which they are picking up meals and even if they don’t qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
“We hypothesize that breakfast increased because nutrition programs are providing both breakfast and lunch at the same time,” Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux said. “During the school days, students can take two trips to the cafeteria, once to receive breakfast, and then receive lunch. The remote programs are providing both a breakfast and a lunch in the single delivery or pick up.”
The meals themselves are not the hot lunches students are used to receiving in school. Districts send home mostly cold meals, such as sandwiches with fruits or vegetables for lunch, and cereal or other shelf-stable items for breakfast. Some, like Bangor, offer hamburger patties with heating instructions. Brewer doesn’t, because school officials aren’t sure what amenities families have at home to heat up food.
Schools have established protocols to maintain social distancing during pickups and deliveries to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Education technicians and teachers who bring weekly meals to Hampden-area homes wear masks and gloves and leave meal packets in a designated spot outside homes instead of handing them directly to parents or students.
RSU 22 is delivering meals to about 900 students in its four towns: Hampden, Winterport, Frankfort and Newburgh, according to Food Services Director Kathy Kittridge. Normally, 678 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
The school district settled on meal delivery rather than pick-up sites based on its experience delivering learning packets to students shortly after school closed in March.
“We do have an awful lot of families especially out in the Winterport and Frankfort areas that have a bit of a distance they were traveling to the school,” Kittridge said. “We ended up having staff to help us do it, and drivers were available to continue doing the routes, so we figured we would keep doing it that way because we thought we’d get the most impact for the families in need.”
The Bangor School Department, which is serving about 650 students a day (more than 2,000 normally qualify for free and reduced-price lunch), recently switched eight of its 10 meal pick-up sites to three days a week from five to limit potential exposure to the virus, according to Food Services Director Noelle Scott.
In Brewer, Hodgins has broken up the 13 teachers and ed techs who hand out meals at designated pick-up sites into three groups. She always schedules the same people to work at the same time as an added precaution.
Between three pickup sites spread across the city, Brewer hands out about 200 breakfasts and 200 lunches every day; 1,300 students typically receive free or reduced-price lunches when school is in session.
“Not everybody’s taking advantage of it, but those who need it are. And we have children who are not eligible that are coming to get meals,” Hodgins said. “Some of them, their situation’s changed and they may need it now. Others, we’re finding, just need the connection.”
When she started the meal pickups, Hodgins and her team of volunteers did not expect the need for human connection during a pandemic to drive parents to the schools for meals. They have since found that the daily interactions also add a welcome respite from social distancing for themselves.
Just before noon Friday, High School Principal Brent Slowikowski rode in on his motorcycle to Brewer Community School.
“This is the part of my job that keeps me sane,” he said to the school staff who were chatting in between handing meals to parents. “I miss not being here.”
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