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State of NH, local school districts, work to keep kids fed

For Immediate Release
March 18, 2020

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State of NH, local school districts, work to keep kids fed
By Dave Solomon

Adam A. Marcoux wasn't sure what to expect when he arrived at the parking lot of Nashua High South on Monday morning. The president of the Nashua Teachers' Union had put out an email appeal over the weekend, seeking volunteers to help with food delivery to students who might otherwise miss out on breakfast and lunch as the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools throughout New Hampshire.

As the cars began streaming into the parking lot, his best hope for a robust community response was realized. "It was amazing," he says. "We had more than 100 volunteers, ranging from food service staff, to paras, teachers, secretaries, nurses… you name it… and members of the general public."

Even as Americans were warned to avoid large gatherings, these volunteers and hundreds of others throughout New Hampshire put the nutritional needs of the state's most vulnerable population ahead of their own safety in ways that will be remembered long after the pandemic has passed. Chaos at the supermarket may be one of the most enduring images of how a crisis can bring out the worst in us, but the outpouring of support for school nutrition programs lets our better angels shine.

"People have been so gracious with their time and energy," says Marcoux. "It's such a new situation for us, dealing with this type of closure. The school district, the city, and all of the other organizations come together to do this in the summer, but we are not worried about being six feet from each other, so this is a lot different."

Since President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into in 1946, low-income families have relied on school meals to supplement a strained grocery budget and provide essential nutrition. Even in a prosperous state like New Hampshire, nearly 30 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals on a statewide average. In Nashua the number is 42 percent. In Manchester, it's 57 percent. In some of the state's poorest neighborhood schools, the percentage can be as high as 80 percent.

Community commitment

The effort to sustain the program through the three-week shutdown and beyond if necessary is a testament to its value and the community commitment to keep it going.

United Ways are providing volunteers; county sheriffs and bus companies are offering to deliver meals to those who have no transportation; non-profits with a focus on food insecurity like End 68 Hours of Hunger have become critical players, along with their regional counterparts, like the SHARE organization in the Milford area.

Nashua managed to ensure that its students would not miss a day. Lunches were available as of Monday, while packages that include lunch and a breakfast for the next day were distributed as of Tuesday.

As teachers and other school staff turn their attentions to the demands of remote instruction, the task of recruiting volunteers to handle distribution at schools throughout the city falls to the United Way.

"We are stepping up into doing the recruiting," says Michael Apfelberg, president of the Greater Nashua United Way.

The agency is recruiting two teams of volunteers – one to be deployed to each school where the food is being distributed to assist in distribution, and a second to work at the same locations, but only on Fridays, to distribute fresh produce along with the breakfast and lunch packages.

"When you drive up on Fridays, instead of one table with bags containing breakfast and lunch, you'll see two tables, one with breakfast and lunch bags and one with fresh produce," said Apfelberg.

Collaboration is key

There is a lot of collaboration going on to make this happen. The Nashua Soup Kitchen is providing produce; Boys and Girls Club vans are running it to schools; and United Way volunteers are handling distribution from there. "You go where the resources are," says Apfelberg. "The soup kitchen has the food; the Boys and Girls Club has the vans; and we have the bodies."

For the time being, income qualification guidelines are being ignored in Nashua and in other communities across the state.

"The volume is up because the kids who are able to access food through this program are not only those who qualify for free and reduced lunch," according to Apfelberg. " It's every kid. If you are under the age of 18, you are not going to be asked where you go to school or if you qualify, or for any other information. And frankly, if you are over 18, you are going to get food anyway."

So far, only so-called Title 1 schools, those with a high percentage of children in poverty, are serving as distribution sites. "We are working to expand the list of schools to be much more user friendly in terms of being more neighborhood focused," said Apfelberg, "But that is going to take some federal government waivers to make that happen."

That's where Cheri White comes in. As administrator of the school nutrition programs at the state Department of Education, her phone has been ringing off the hook as she tries to help school districts meet the demand, while guiding waiver requests through the federal bureaucracy.

She has succeeded in getting waivers from a federal requirement that says subsidized meals can't be served at schools when the school buildings are closed, and got the feds to release New Hampshire from a requirement that, during emergency situations, meals must be served at non-school sites.

Key waivers still pending

Still pending is a request to deviate from the required meal components. "That's an important one," White said "because Manchester just told me late last night that they are having trouble getting milk."

The waiver request to allow schools in fairly prosperous communities to become free food distribution sites is not likely to be approved, according to White.

"I don't think we are going to get the waiver on those (higher income) schools," she said, "so we are looking for alternative options for schools that do not meet the eligibility criteria. We're trying to figure out different ways of doing it."

For now, many school districts are just handing out meals to anyone who shows up, and planning to figure out the reimbursement later, when the full package of federal and state relief measures is known.
The approach to keeping kids fed during the crisis varies from district to district. Some are focusing on distribution at key locations throughout the community, while others are deploying buses to deliver meals at bus stops.

"Take your pick. It's any number of things," according to White. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut is working with the Rockingham County Sheriff to see if deputies can be used to deliver meals.

"If you're in a city situation where you have a lot of kids who walk to school, then you have more of a drive up situation. If you are a school that is very rural, and all of the kids are bused, then you are looking primarily at a busing situation. If you have both going on, you are going to have to do both," said White.

A survey of what schools are doing across the state shows wide variation. The Mascoma district, serving a cluster of rural communities east of Lebanon, supplied bag lunches on Monday, but administrators were devising plans to use school bus drivers for deliveries in the future.

In Belmont, Shaker Regional School District Superintendent Michael Tursi told the Laconia Citizen that students would get food at Belmont High School and Canterbury Elementary School this week, but starting next week, food will be delivered using school buses on their normal bus routes.

In Concord, the district is working on a system that will enable kids to access food for dinner and on weekends, in addition to breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.
Not all districts were able to get programs up and running the first week of the crisis.

"We've been planning diligently for the last three days, so our plan will go live on Monday," said Berlin area superintendent Julie King. "Our kitchen staff will be putting together breakfast and bagged lunch."

Berlin is a "total service area" as far as Title 1 is concerned, "so any family in the area that has children under age of 18 that wants to take advantage can do so," according to King, "and we are setting up a bus route."

"I've been in contact with the local food pantry, and their organization is picking up the slack this week," she said.

These stories are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative.