LIMA — Mindy Cole spends her Wednesday afternoons in the parking lot outside North Middle School, waiting for parents whose children are enrolled in remote learning to pick up their child’s meals for the week.
For breakfast, students can take home a week’s worth of individually packaged cereal, granola bars and pop tarts, with juice boxes and milk cartons available on the side.
For lunch, there’s apple sauce, carrot sticks, raisins and miniature frozen pizzas or hamburgers that can be reheated for a hot meal at home.
The meals are free, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) effort to ensure that students who rely on free and reduced-price school lunches as their primary source of nutrition still have access to those meals when schools are closed or those students have opted out of in-person instruction.
“As soon as we were shut down, we knew that the children needed fed,” said Carrie Woodruff, food services director for Lima schools, which operated as many as nine food distribution sites last spring at the height of school closures and mass unemployment.
An estimated 4,780 children in Allen County are believed to live in food-insecure households as of 2018, according to Feeding America. Of those children, roughly 1,380 were likely ineligible for federal nutrition programs that year despite being at risk for poor nutrition because their families were financially unstable.
The number of children living in food-insecure households has increased since the pandemic disrupted the economy, as food banks have seen record-breaking demand in the last 12 months.
For Woodruff, the necessity of sending food home for students who were no longer in the classroom was urgent. She immediately set up the distribution program, sourcing individually packaged foods that could be sent home with families and working with administrators, teachers and food service staff to ensure meals were packed quickly.
“The parents could still provide a healthier meal,” Woodruff said, “but at least they had a snack and some milk and fruit to go with it.”
Those families were later able to purchase meals on their own through the USDA’s emergency Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program, which paid up to $6.82 per day per child who would normally receive a free or reduced-price lunch at school and eased the burden on school districts and food banks.
Similar efforts are still under way at other school districts operating under hybrid-learning models or where parents are reluctant to send their children back to the classroom.
At Lima schools, the to-go meals distribution program has downsized from nine distribution sites to one, as most students have returned to the classroom. But there are still roughly 500 students taking their courses online. And among those students, some still turn to the schools for assistance.