With short notice of needing to do so, the Child Nutrition Program of the Essex Westford School District (EWSD) quickly altered its operations in order to provide free meals for children in the area upon a state-mandated closure of schools.

On Monday, March 16, Vermont Governor Phil Scott announced the initial, temporary closing of schools required by that Wednesday. By Thursday, EWSD was handing out free meals for anyone 18 years old and younger--requiring no application or prior approval.

“Getting up and running was really difficult, because it's something we'd never done,” said Senior Child Nutrition Manager Scott Fay. “And we hadn't had much time; we had about two days of planning. Luckily, I have an awesome staff that came to work despite being anxious about being around other people and this illness going around. They showed up to work, worked really hard, and made it happen. Now a week later, things are really smoothing out.

“I can't stress enough how appreciative I am, and the district is, that our staff is stepping up to the plate and making this happen,” he added. “And it's because they just care; they want to make sure these kids are well fed during this time.”

That first day of offering food, EWSD provided about 800 meals according to Fay. That following Wednesday, Fay says they handed out over 1,600 bags of breakfast and lunch--much to the delight of families and students.

“I think it's been very, very well received in the community,” he noted. “I've heard nothing but a lot of thank-yous and a lot of people that seem to really appreciate what we're doing.”

Fay said that the drastic increase has been due, in part, to more people in the district becoming aware of the opportunity, learning the time and location details, and not being hesitant to utilize the resource. He also said that it’s largely due to people helping one another during these troubling times.

“I think the biggest reason is that it seems like the community’s trying to take care of each other,” said Fay. “We have people showing up saying, ‘We're picking up for three neighbors that aren’t able to get out,’ or, ‘We're picking up for our neighborhood kids or our friends’ kids.’ And I think people are just helping each other, and it's helping move more food.”

Asked if he was worried about whether or not people might be taking advantage of the services--grabbing more than one bag per child each day, taking bags for people who might be older than 18, or people who live outside of the district stopping by--Fay simply said, “I have no concern about that.”

Fay said that he thinks the program will see a max-out of around 2,000 meals per day across the district once everyone who becomes aware of the possibility starts to routinely reap its benefits. However, he’s confident that his staff will be able to meet the needs should they exceed that number.

“We have massive capacity,” he added, “so we can keep up with pretty much whatever. Right now, at the 1,600 mark, it's not even half of what our normal day is. And [the system is] efficient, so we can keep up.”

That efficiency remains despite Fay only having about 30 percent of his staff able to work as others have needed to self quarantine or stay at home to care for their own children. The program’s food service employees who are able to work head to the main production kitchen at the high school early each weekday to get all of the supplies ready to be distributed to the three pick-up locations: Maple Street Park, Essex Elementary School, and Westford School.

At those sites, there is one food service employee with the two Essex-based tents including three volunteers who help put the bags together. Fay said those volunteers are mostly other district employees, but he’s had a substantial group of community members who have offered their time as well--actually having to turn some away as he’s had more come forward than he can keep busy.

Breakfasts this week included banana or cinnamon bread and raisins (Monday), an apple Nutri-Grain bar and a cheese stick (Tuesday), and vanilla yogurt, granola, and mixed fruit (Wednesday)--all days including milk. Lunches consisted of a pizza Lunchable (Tuesday), a turkey sub and cheese stick (Thursday), and chicken tenders and ranch dip (Friday)--all days including veggies, fruit, and milk.

While neighboring communities have used their buses to help deliver meals, EWSD has not yet implemented such a service. However, Fay says it’s something that is being discussed.

“We are still working on the idea,” he said. “We moved away from the full-sized bus deliveries, and we're considering a plan for micro deliveries or micro drop-off sites. I don't want to make any promises, but we're working on getting something together as early as next week.”

While the district’s kitchens use strict cleanliness practices during normal operation, Fay says that they have taken one additional step during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that the meal preparation areas, and the food itself, is healthy and safe. Each afternoon, cleaners go into the high school and use a “fogging” type of machine that helps completely sanitize the kitchen.

All of the free meals are coming at no cost to Essex residents as the program is being federally funded.

Fay encourages people to utilize the services--saying that the more who pick up the free meals, the better.

“The idea there is on a few different fronts,” he said. “Having groups of people showing up to pick up their food reduces the stigma attached to being ‘needy.’ It also allows us the ability to move our inventory and keep our vegetables and produce really fresh. And the more meals we hand out, the more reimbursement we get from the federal government to put back into this program, and it feeds that cycle.”

Monday night, when heavy snow started to fall, Fay was asked about whether meal distribution might be halted on Tuesday--as students aren’t afforded the chance to get school meals if a snow day is issued under normal and similar weather circumstances. Once again, he was confident in his crew’s ability and willingness to provide for its students.

“We’re going to plug away,” he said in an email Monday night. “Right now, bad weather is a piece of cake. Yeah, on snow days they don’t get school food. This is different, though, and during this difficult time, we have to be more sensitive than ever to food insecurity.”

Updated pick-up times for each location and daily menus can be found at https://www.ewsd.org/Page/2413.

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