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Schools continue to provide meals during Coronavirus closures

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LAKE COUNTY – Though schools are closed for two weeks to reduce the spread of COVID-19, districts are making sure students are still fed. Since the closures, schools have given out hundreds of meals for students to eat at home to make up for meals they would have otherwise eaten in their school’s cafeteria. 

Marsha Wartick, Ronan School District food service director, said families have been grateful to have access to school meals during the closures.“We’ve had some families meet us with tears in their eyes because they didn’t know what they were going to do to feed their kids.”

Wartick said she started preparing for the possibility of a school closure before the announcement was made. She had researched how schools in other states had distributed meals during closures, so she was prepared to enact a plan to feed students when the schools closed. 

Wartick and her food service team worked together to assemble sack breakfasts and lunches. They used the meal model they normally use for summer meals. She said feeding such a large volume of students is more labor intensive than making regular school meals. The food service staff is also taking extra precautions to ensure the food is not exposed to germs. “It’s gloves, gloves, and more gloves, and lots of handwashing,” Wartick said. 

Wartick said they had all the food supplies on hand, but needed to assemble paper sacks and ziplock bags to prepare to distribute meals. Now, those items are getting hard to find. Wartick said she’s been searching local stores for them. She thinks she can get through another week or so with the supplies she has. Ronan school bus drivers are driving their routes to distribute the meals to students. That ensures that the drivers have a steady source of income during the school closures. 

On the first day of meal distribution, students in Ronan picked up less than 200 meals. By Friday the food service team had distributed more than 4,600 sack meals over the course of the week. Wartick said as the word gets out, the number of students picking up meals is increasing. 

Wartick said she and her team are prepared to continue the program long term if schools stay closed. The menu might change a bit, depending on what the kitchen has access to, but meals will continue to be delivered to students who need them. 

Schools are using funding from the state’s summer feeding program to provide the lunches free of charge to any child up to age 18. The state’s Office of Public Instruction made those funds available early due to the school closures caused by the spread of COVID-19. 

Schools have implemented a number of different methods for distributing food. In Arlee, staff volunteered to help distribute meals. Superintendent Jim Baldwin said school and community members have rushed to help implement the new program. Staff volunteered to help put together sack lunches and distribute meals. “It was typical Arlee fashion,” Baldwin said. “People stepped up with care and teamwork, just because they don’t want kids to be hungry.”

Baldwin has been handing out meals in the parking lot of Wilson Foods in Arlee. He said community members who have seen him there have offered financial and volunteer support to make sure all students who need food can get it. 

In St. Ignatius, Dawn McNutt, a parent, said the school meals would help her family get through the closure. She has five children who normally rely on school meals to stay fed during the school week. St. Ignatius had several opportunities for families to pick up a week’s worth of lunches for their students outside the school. St. Ignatius will not distribute meals during its March 23-27 spring break. 

Ronan is distributing meals by bus to a variety of locations throughout the district. Meals will be distributed from 8 to 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Pablo School, Joe Dog area, the SKC bookstore, the Middle School Event Center, Terrace Lake (White’s Meats), Pewlosap, North Crow Clubhouse, Pache and the old Job Corp. They will be available at Sparrow Lane from 8 to 8:25 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. Meals can also be picked up from 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 12 to 12:30 p.m. at Burnt Pine and Woodcock. In addition to school meals, evening grab-and-go meals are being provided by the Boys and Girls Club at the Ronan Clubhouse from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

In Polson meals are being served from 8 to 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Breakfast is distributed at Cherry Valley Elementary school, Linderman Elementary School, Turtle Lake Head Start, the Elmo Community Center, and the Big Arm Fire Department. Lunch is being given out at all of those locations, plus at Dayton Elementary and Valley View School.

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