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Reinventing the meal: Sudden break has school lunch staff seeking new ways to get food to kids

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Quintavious Harris, 11, gets his breakfast and lunch bagged up by school lunchroom employees and volunteers at Carver Community Center in Anniston on Wednesday.

Anniston resident Denise Jones would like to think that the coronavirus crisis, with kids cooped up and home and people out of work, is going to last two weeks or so — about as long as the school break that began this week. But she suspects it’s going to go on a lot longer.

“Kids don’t understand why they can’t go anywhere,” Jones said. 

Jones, with two out-of-school nephews in tow, was among dozens of people who showed up at the Constantine Boys and Girls Clubs at 11 a.m. Thursday to pick up bags full of food that, under normal conditions, would have been served at Anniston High School. 

Even though school is out, school lunch workers across Calhoun County were hard at work this week making sure kids on free and reduced-price lunch get the breakfast and the lunch they’d normally get at school. 

School systems often keep their lunchrooms open throughout the summer to make sure kids have enough to eat. The need may be greater during this break, which comes unplanned at a time when shoppers are hoarding some food items and some people may lose paychecks because of business closures. 

The sudden school closure has lunchroom workers inventing their own food distribution systems on the fly. Feeding kids in a school cafeteria isn’t an option, because health officials are urging people to avoid large crowds, especially indoors. 

For Anniston City Schools, the solution was to go where the students were. On Wednesday, lunchroom workers assembled bagged lunches at tables in the parking lot of Carver Community Center and seven other sites — all of them community centers and Boys and Girls Clubs. By Thursday, they’d expanded to 15 sites, and refined their approach.

“We’re learning,” said Tanya Felton, director of the child nutrition program for Anniston High. “We had our biggest crowd yesterday here at Constantine, and we figured out that we need to have the bags assembled before we get here.”

Felton said lunchroom workers distributed 470 lunches Wednesday, with the number expected to grow in coming days. 

At Jacksonville High School, parents lined up in their cars Thursday morning in the back of school, where they’d normally drop off or pick up kids. Instead, teachers and school administrators loaded each car with a 7-day supply of food. 

“It’s not just sandwiches,” said child nutrition program director Stephanie Gossett. “We’re sending home frozen pizza, corn dogs. They will just get a bag of lunch food and breakfast food.”

Finding people to work the sites hasn’t been a problem. Gossett said teachers and administrators volunteered for the duty, and in fact the school system had to limit their numbers because volunteers needed government-required training before they could do the work. 

Felton, too, said Anniston has to turn volunteers away.

“It’s something everybody wants to do,” she said.

In Calhoun County Schools, teachers regularly send home “blessing bags” to help students on free and reduced-price lunch during long school breaks. School officials earlier this week said they called on local churches and volunteers to distribute food the school lunchrooms already had on hand. 

Nikki Haynes, minister of family programs at First Baptist Church of Williams, said church volunteers assembled blessing bags for distribution at Pleasant Valley Elementary on Monday. Community members donated so much food, she said, that the church still has some bags left. 

Red tape, by and large, was not a problem. State school officials said early on that they intended to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure that the break meals would qualify for federal funding. School officials on Thursday said their cost would indeed be reimbursable. 

Anniston schools typically don’t serve lunch during spring break, and the school system doesn’t have the funding to serve lunch during the week of March 23, which would have been the break. Felton said another organization is already looking into filling that gap. 

For families who didn’t see a break coming, it’s a welcome effort. 

“It’s a very big help,” said Jones. “It’s a blessing.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.