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School districts continue to offer free breakfast and lunch during pandemic

Groton — Food services employees in the Groton Middle School kitchen last Tuesday loaded a rolling cart with recyclable lunch boxes filled with individually wrapped grinders, cucumbers, apples and baked Cheetos to distribute to students in their classrooms.

In another area, employees packed an assortment of breakfast and lunches into bags for a cohort of students to take home as they finish their week distance learning. At another table, employees filled bags with five days’ worth of meals to hand out Wednesday at distribution sites at Groton Public Library, St. John’s Christian Church and Mary Morrisson Elementary School, for students who opted for full remote learning.

While before the pandemic, Groton students lined up to place items, such as carrots in soufflé cups, on their trays and then ate at cafeteria tables, the schools are shifting to a new mode of providing lunch during the pandemic.

Food service employees are busy distributing food safely and as quickly as possible, while also providing nutritious food that children will enjoy, said Ernie Koschmieder, food service director for Groton Public Schools. They are taking precautions, such as individually wrapping food for safety, and freezing meals and providing heating instructions so students can still eat the same foods they used to have at school while learning at home.

“It’s taking a lot more labor and a lot more packaging, but we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do for our community,” said Koschmieder.

Free meals for students

School districts are able to provide the meals at no cost to children age 18 and under through a United States Department of Agriculture waiver. Most school districts in the region, including East Lyme, Groton, Lyme-Old Lyme, Montville, New London, North Stonington, Norwich, Preston, Stonington and Waterford, said they have received the waiver to provide free meals until Dec. 31 or when the funding runs out.

Koschmieder said the program eliminates the need for the transaction of money during the pandemic, alleviates the burden on families facing financial hardship and levels the playing field for all students.

The School Nutrition Association is requesting that USDA extend the waiver for the entire school year, said Dianne Houlihan, Waterford’s Director of School Dining and Nutrition Services. Koschmieder said food services directors hope that the government will decide to fund the program until the end of the school year.

School districts are still asking families to fill out free and reduced meal applications, for when program funding is slated to run out and also because the numbers are factored into grants the districts receive, said Koschmieder.

Ledyard Public Schools, which is also providing free meals in schools and for pickup, wrote in a communication: “We are glad to be able to meet the needs of students during these times with approval to run this program. Due to the finite time that it will be available, we urge families to submit updated free and reduced meal applications. The application will be valid through the end of the school year, and also provides access to other helpful programs. ..."

The school district added that the applications are confidential.

Lyme-Old Lyme Schools Superintendent Ian Neviaser said last week that since the waiver has been in place for about a week and a half, he's seen a slight uptick so far in students participating. He noted some families will still choose to bring their own lunches for their children, because of taste preferences.

"I think it's great that this is being offered, and we'll certainly continue to support that as long as USDA does," Neviaser said.

Since the pandemic started in March and until right before the school started this year, Groton served 213,994 meals, about a six-month snapshot of the need families are facing, Koschmieder said. He said that with the waiver, the district can provide meals to all Groton children 18 and under in the household, so if a student goes to technical school or a school in another town, they can still receive meals.

Erin Perpetua, director of food services for Norwich Public Schools, said the USDA waiver has allowed the district to also provide free meals to schools such as Sacred Heart in Taftville, Natchaug-Joshua Center in the industrial park and for children in the Parks and Recreation Enrichment Program.

New meal preparations

Chris Urban, food services director for the East Lyme school district, said East Lyme’s lunch staff has been serving the community since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

“They have been real behind the scenes super heroes providing thousands of meals to families in need,” he said.

With most school districts following the hybrid model, food service workers have to provide meals to cohorts of students in school for two days a week and at home three days a week, as well as families that opt for their children to learn remotely five days a week.

East Lyme is providing individually wrapped meals for curbside pickup for full remote learners and for students following the hybrid model during their at-home days. Students in school pick up grab and go breakfast when they arrive on campus, and eat lunch in school. Elementary school students get their meal delivered to them table-side when they arrive in the “Social Distance Café” during their lunch period. Middle and high school students pick up meals during their lunch wave, while following the district’s social distancing and mask policy.

Samantha Wilson, the head of food services for New London Public Schools, said students eat lunch in school in their classrooms and go home with a “Take Home Meal Bag” on Tuesdays or Fridays that provides enough breakfasts and lunches to get them through the days they are not in school. Students who are enrolled in distance learning are able to pick up a full week's worth of food on Wednesdays from their school location.

She said the district is continuing to prepare entrees from scratch that have been frozen and packaged in oven-safe tins for re-heating with instructions placed in every bag.

“Our primary focus from March until now is to ensure we continue to offer high quality meals to all children 18 and younger,” she said. “We encourage families and community members as a whole to pay close attention to our NLPS website and social media pages for any updates to our feeding programs, as it is a very fluid situation.”

The Waterford school district is offering meals to all students in the classroom when they are in school, and they can pick up grab and go breakfasts for the classroom when they get off the bus. Families can also pick up curbside meals for children at set hours on Mondays and Wednesdays at Clark Lane Middle School.

Most of the curbside meals are frozen in microwavable containers with reheat instructions.

Montville Public Schools is packaging meals in foil to-go containers so families can reheat them at home, said Superintendent Laurie Pallin. Through an online form on the district’s website, families can pre-order meals for pickup.

“We are very happy that we are able to provide this essential service to our families and are seeing the number of families taking advantage of it grow over the first weeks of school,” said Pallin.

Lyme-Old Lyme Public Schools opted to go fully in-person rather than operating under a hybrid model. Neviaser said about 92% of students are attending school in-person, while the remaining 8% are fully remote. Remote learners can pick up meals at the front of each building.

Breakfast is offered only at Lyme Consolidated School and Lyme-Old Lyme High School, while lunch is offered at all five schools.

Everything is now individually packaged, so "the days of salad bars and buffets and things like that are unfortunately long gone," Neviaser said.

Perpetua said the Norwich school district is pre-packaging take-home meals in containers with reheating and cold holding instructions. There is a pick-up window at each school for remote learners and for any child 18 or younger.

Preston Superintendent of Schools Roy M. Seitsinger said in school students are offered breakfast and lunch each day. Hybrid and distance learners have the ability to pick up breakfast and lunch meals using a grab and go system. The district is offering both cold and hot meals, with the ability to heat or reheat using basic instructions.

“We are happy to be able to support all families and their child's nutrition during these trying times,” he said.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Amanda Hutchinson, Erica Moser and Sten Spinella contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com

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