School meal program brings food, and a sense of calm, to local children

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For hundreds of kids and families in Blaine, Birch Bay and Point Roberts, the Blaine school district’s meal distribution program is a connection to life before the new coronavirus outbreak reached Whatcom County.

The program, which began distributing meals by school bus and at a pick-up location at Blaine High School on March 18, seeks to bring a sense of calm to local families and ease one of many worries, said Laurie Pike, school district food service director.

“Thank everyone. Tell them it’s going to be okay and we will be back tomorrow,” Pike told drivers and lunch room staff before the first day of meal distribution. She told staff they’d see all emotions and prepped them to comfort people. “For all we have to worry about, we don’t want to worry if our children are going to eat.”

Washington governor Jay Inslee announced on March 13 that K-12 schools in the state would close for six weeks to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus. His order mandated that districts had to continue to feed their students. The Blaine school district made a plan to do that over the course of a weekend and a couple of business days.

About half the students who attend Blaine schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch, but the district is giving meals to anyone under 18 who lives in the district and wants one. Monday through Friday, six school buses leave the district with hundreds of bags packed with a lunch and breakfast for the next day. They visit every regular bus stop, including in Point Roberts. On Fridays, they deliver double.

At the district’s campus, behind the grandstand, food service workers hand out meals to families at a makeshift drive-through. Inside, a crew puts together about a thousand meal bags every day.

“None of us have ever done this before. It’s trial and error,” Colin Hawkins said on March 18 while handing out meals at the district campus. The day before, district food service employees prepared 960 bags, each with lunch and breakfast, in a two-hour blitz. Staff didn’t know how many meals they’d need, but their guess was pretty close – they’ve been handing out about that many ever since, he said.

Since March 18, the program has gotten more efficient, with bus routes and stops being fine-tuned based on how many families come to each stop. It’s also had to adjust for food supply; school districts are all distributing cold food that doesn’t need to be reheated, and most districts use the same supply company, so the district can’t always get what it wants and has to improvise, Hawkins said.

Four days into the program, not all families in the district knew where to go to get food and missed the pick-up window. In those cases, school staff would deliver food themselves, Hawkins said.

“Whatever we can do to help people get through this, we’ll do it,” he said.

Learn more about the program and find meal pick-up locations at blainesd.org.

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