School districts open food distribution sites across the region
“God bless you all for doing this,” a mother of four said Monday as Savannah Theriault, food services manager at the Samuel Huntington School in Norwich reached into the rear of her SUV and handed the woman pre-packaged lunches for her family at the Bishop School food distribution site.
Norwich school food services staff handed out hundreds of bagged lunches and breakfasts at 19 sites Monday, offering choices of several main items — deli or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken nuggets, cereal, bagel and cream cheese, yogurt. Each packet also containing a vegetable, fruit, milk and snack.
Food distribution sites such as those in Norwich opened across the region on Monday, an emergency extension of popular summer food programs aimed at reaching families in need.
In New London, the grab-and-go breakfast and lunch bundles were given to a steady stream of visitors at four different schools. The district’s food service employees prepared about 750 meals.
Samantha Wilson, New London Public Schools director of food services, said more than 80 percent of the district’s 3,500 students are eligible for a food assistance program funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an indicator that “there is definitely a need.”
Nationally, nearly 22 million students each day depend on a free or reduced price school lunch as a key source of their daily nutrition, the School Nutrition Association says.
“Its scary times. A lot of families depend on this food even when they are collecting a paycheck,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that with the shutdowns occurring almost daily because of the coronavirus, she expects the need to grow as time goes on.
At the Wequonnnoc School in Taftville, Sadie Blais, 16, a 10th grader at Norwich Free Academy, her brothers, Masson Grant, 9, and Colton Grant, 4, and friend and classmate, Tracy Land, 15, didn’t mind the chilly 40-degree weather Monday morning. They opted for an impromptu picnic on the school sidewalk curb. Their husky, Scrappy, didn’t mind either, as he snuck a piece of ham sandwich from Tracy.
“It’s kind of bad, and kind of good,” Masson Grant said of school being closed. “We’ll miss a lot of education.”
Blais said the free meals will help a lot of families get through the school closures financially. She and her brothers and friend walked to Wequonnoc in the center of the Taftville mill village.
Oscar Valdez arrived at Harbor Elementary School to pick up a study packet for her 4-year-old preschooler and gratefully snagged some food on the way out. District staff set up a roadside table in front of the school.
Food in New London is being distributed Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at four different sites: New London High School, Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School; Bennie Dover Jackson Multi-Magnet Middle School and Harbor Elementary School.
Valdez said not only do some families not have the means or time to provide a daily breakfast and lunch but there are a lot of unknowns surrounding the coronavirus. Valdez himself is out of work temporarily due to the closure at Twin River casino where he works.
A similar scene played out in Groton. Around 9 a.m. Monday, Groton Public Schools food services employees hauled boxes filled with bags of food from a vehicle to set up on folding tables outside West Side STEM Magnet Middle School.
“This is the first day, so we’re all figuring this out together,” Doreen McHugh, a food preparation employee, said encouragingly as the employees worked to set up the tables.
Families lined up to pick up grab-and-go bags of cereal, a turkey sandwich, chips, and an apple, as well as milk and juice, for their children. Some walked, biked or took a car to the site, and some families also picked up packets of supplemental learning materials, that will be available during the morning food distribution time.
“Stay healthy!” said Patty Nott, a cook at West Side STEM Magnet Middle School, as families took their bags.
On Sunday food service employees had prepared 700 lunches and breakfasts for distribution at three sites: West Side STEM Magnet Middle School, Mary Morrisson Elementary School, and Groton Public Library. The Groton sites will be open from 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Monday through Friday for children in the community to pick up a grab-and-go breakfast and lunch bag.
Nott said the employees are used to making large amounts of food in a short period of time, such as when they prepare summer meals for children.
Parent Stephanie Manuel stopped by West Side on Monday morning, with her daughter Apphia, 11, a sixth grader, to retrieve items from the school for Apphia’s schoolwork. Apphia also picked up a grab-and-go breakfast and lunch.
“I’m thankful,” Apphia said.
Manuel said it was great that Groton Public Schools were distributing healthy meals, and it’s really helpful for kids, especially those on low incomes.
At the West Side site, about 100 meals were distributed on Monday, but participation is expected to increase as time goes on, said Superintendent Michael Graner.
Wilson in New London said the first day of the distribution ran smoothly. After all, the district does have experience serving 3,300 kids a day in the span of three hours. New London schools is working on plans to serve hot meals.