The Bulloch County Schools’ effort to provide free meals to children and teens during the COVID-19-induced schools closure distributed 975 bags containing both breakfast and lunch Tuesday, its first day of operation.
Wednesday morning, with word of the program and the reality of the situation reaching more families, 1,117 children were served. Each received a white paper bag, filled with items for both daytime meals, to be consumed at home or another location. After starting with 30 pick-up sites those first two days, school system officials made plans to open four more sites Thursday. A list of the locations and delivery times, which vary from site to site, appears with this story.
Georgia’s public schools will be closed at least through March 31 under emergency orders from Gov. Brian Kemp. In Bulloch County, where more than 33% of children live in poverty, the need for school kitchens to continue to help meet their nutritional needs is great, said Bulloch County School Nutrition Director Megan Blanchard.
“This service is very essential to the children of Bulloch County. …,” she said in a reply email. “A lot of our students rely on the food that we serve during the school year, and sadly that is the only meal that they may have that day. With this opportunity, we are able to ensure that they have the food they need.”
While also noting the 33% figure, Hayley Greene, the school system’s public relations director, mentioned that more than half of the local students with family incomes below the federal poverty level live in the city limits of Statesboro.
“Food insecurity is something that we deal with on a daily basis, not just during a shutdown or a crisis. ...,” Greene said. “Some of our schools have over 90% of their children receiving free and reduced (price) lunch, so it’s a huge issue that we deal with every day.”
Nonprofit and faith-based organizations partner with the schools in the Backpack Buddies program, providing weekend food for more than 500 children during the school year. The school system also hosts an annual children’s summer meal program, which like the regular school breakfast and lunch programs, is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For all children
During the current unprecedented closure, the local school food service is drawing on USDA funding and supplies to offer meals Monday through Friday for children, from newborns up to 18-year-olds. Again, they do not have to be enrolled in the Bulloch County Schools, but children are expected to appear in person to receive the meals.
“Each child is receiving grab-and-go breakfast and lunch,” Blanchard said. “USDA sent out a waiver for unanticipated school closures due to the COVID-19, allowing multiple meals to be served at one time.”
So as not to defeat the protective purpose of the school closure, children are not allowed to congregate or consume meals at the distribution sites.
What’s in the bag?
Of course, the items distributed in the bags are not hot meals.
Breakfast items each day will include an entrée, fruit and milk, the school officials said. Tuesday’s breakfast entrée was cereal. A toaster pastry would be another typical breakfast entrée, Greene said.
Lunch each day will include an entrée, a fruit item, a vegetable item, chips or cookie and milk. So, in each bag there are two individual serving-size cartons of milk, technically one for breakfast and one for lunch.
Within those guidelines, the items will vary from day to day, but all are chosen to be easily transported and potentially eaten later, Greene said.
On Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day, the treat item was a shamrock cookie, while the lunch entrée was a turkey and cheese sandwich, the vegetable item was fresh carrots with ranch dip, and the fruit was an apple.
Food safety tips, such as reminders about things that need refrigeration, are also placed in the bags.
The cafeterias at just two of the schools – Julia P. Bryant Elementary School in Statesboro and Portal Middle High School in Portal – are being used as “hubs” to prepare the meals and send them out to all 30-plus, as of Thursday 34, pick-up sites. School buses bring the meals to remote sites.
Can add capacity
Ordinarily, the Bulloch County Schools employ 89 school nutrition workers in the 15 schools and central office. As of Tuesday and Wednesday, 19 of those school nutrition employees, plus nine bus drivers, were working in the current effort to prepare and distribute meals.
Those numbers will increase as participation grows, Blanchard said.
Troy Brown, Bulloch County Schools assistant superintendent for business services, explained that other personnel have also been involved. First, school social workers and parent liaisons had a meeting to identify the needs of children and the pick-up locations that could best meet those needs, Brown said.
“Transportation services met to determine the addresses of those locations, to set up the times, and to line up the bus drivers,” he continued. “And school food services are the ones putting everything together at those sites. It was a group effort of all the employees coming together.”
Leaders of these groups would review to see if the sites worked, he said at the effort’s onset.
“The number of sites will be fluid,” Brown said. “We might add sites, and we might determine we don’t need a site in a particular location.”
So far, the decision has been to add sites, in anticipation of more children receiving meals.
Herald writer Julie Lavender also contributed to this story. Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.