School districts face challenge feeding students

Smyrna School District’s child nutrition staff prepare and package school breakfast and lunches for distribution to students while schools are closed. Submitted photo

SMYRNA — When schools closed, it took districts just a few days to switch gears and begin offering free breakfasts and lunches to students at sites across the state to fill the need they’re accustomed to addressing every day.

With schools out for a full month — and another month to go, at the very least — districts are prepared to keep serving, but they’re meeting new obstacles as they continue.

“I’ll be honest, the biggest competitor we have right now is the restaurant industry,” said Roger Holt, supervisor of child nutrition services in the Smyrna School District. “To serve food on a curbside … we need to-go containers, we need to-go bags, we need different things like that. And the restaurant industry is doing the same thing right now.”

Beyond the heightened competition for those to-go products, there’s also the cost, Mr. Holt said.

“Typically, we serve food out of cafeterias where we have serving lines with trays that we can put food on, and we can wash those trays and reuse them, whereas now we’re using single use containers,” he said. “And those packaging containers and bags that we have to put our food in are expenses that we didn’t really plan to have to pay. So a lot of my budget’s going to that.”

But Mr. Holt didn’t want to compromise the quality of the 1,600 meals going to students each day.

The district cooks its meals from scratch and has continued the usual menu items, such as chili and macaroni and cheese, and salads made with produce from Delaware’s 302 Aquaponics and American Beauty. Items are packaged in microwave safe containers and frozen for distribution.

“I’m purchasing higher quality fruit and vegetables and things like that — good stuff,” he said. “I’m trying to delay going to serving an excessive amount of product that’s shelf stable.”

That’s where the Harry K Foundation comes in. Established by Harry Keswani, the foundation seeks to raise money and donate the proceeds to address food insecurity in the state. The funds are dispersed to the Delaware Food Bank for the School Backpack Programs, and support 48 food pantries in Delaware.

One of those food pantries is at Smyrna School District, which differs from the meal service provided while schools are closed. The food pantry connects families in need with approximately 30 pounds of food — from canned foods, to pasta, to cereal bars, etc. — each week. It also provides household items, like cleaning supplies, paper towels or toilet paper.

The food pantry began several years ago when Kathy Andrus, school outreach board committee chairperson for Harry K, reached out to the district. Ms. Andrus is a former Smyrna administrator, whose connection with the district first led to beginning the food pantry.

Ms. Andrus called Mr. Holt a few weeks ago to see how things were going with the Food Bank and the district’s response to the pandemic, and asked what the district was doing for the families given the extended closure.

“He told me all the wonderful things they are doing and the hot meals they’re cooking and the way that he has three-quarters of a cafeteria staff working to make meals,” she said. “It’s just so heartwarming.”

Mr. Holt mentioned the financial difficulty with the to-go boxes and bags, and not too long after ended up on the phone with Mr. Keswani.

“We had a couple lengthy phone calls and by the time we were done, I went ahead and approved him immediately and made sure that he has the funding to continue the work,” Mr. Keswani said.

The foundation is giving $6,000 to the district each week for Mr. Holt to continue its service. And Harry K is looking to expand aid; Mr. Keswani said that the foundation sent a letter to all 19 superintendents about lending a hand.

“The whole idea behind [the foundation] is that no child goes to sleep hungry,” he said. “That was an issue before the crisis. And now, can you imagine now with the crisis? With a lot of my pantries that are in schools having been closed? There’s maybe about a dozen of those 48 pantries open.”

As the Smyrna district goes on serving meals for the students through the school closure, Mr. Holt said that the support from the foundation has helped mitigate pressure.

“Having the money from Harry K allows us to keep going with serving high-quality food to our families, to our students,” he said. “And it takes a lot of pressure off you when somebody helps you out like that.”

He added that those in the district serving students are dedicated.

“They are working so hard every day to make this a reality,” he said. “I’m just so overwhelmed with pride with what they’re doing, how they come in every day with a smile on their face and put themselves at risk to take care of kids in the community.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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