MERIDEN — Over the long Memorial Day weekend, Meriden Public School cafeterias distributed over 4,000 bags of food, about double what it passes out on a weekly basis.
Each bag contained breakfast and lunch for four days.
Meriden isn’t alone. According to the Connecticut Mirror, since statewide school closures on March 16 more than 5.5 million meals have been served (as of May 21) to schoolchildren in 130 school districts.
According to city school officials, the food distribution program is scheduled to end Aug. 30, but if the beginning of the 2020-21 school year is delayed because of the coronavirus, they are prepared to keep going.
“The district has really embraced our services … I can imagine it would continue,” said Susan Maffe, director of food and nutrition services.
The school district’s nutritional infrastructure, designed to serve mass amounts of food in a small space, had to change on the fly to address needs created by the spread of COVID-19.
“Our mantra from day one is that if you are not changing every day, you are not paying attention,” said David Salafia, family-school liaison coordinator for Meriden Public Schools.
Anyone in Meriden with a member of their household under the age of 18 is eligible for the food distribution program, which takes place Monday through Thursday, 11:45 am to 12:30 p.m. There is no registration to participate.
Breakfast and lunch is distributed at eight sites across Meriden: John Barry Elementary School, Hanover Elementary School, Thomas Hooker Elementary School, Casimir Pulaski Elementary School, Israel Putnam Elementary School, Lincoln Middle School, Washington Middle School, and Maloney High School.
The commitment to the program, an amplification of its usual summer meals program, has changed the way the district thinks about and executes its food service, Maffe said.
“It’s very different than what we do in the school year,” Maffe said.
Instead of serving food buffet style — think of your typical school cafeteria line — each day’s meals are prepackaged, creating another layer of complication. They also moved from cold meals to food that can be warmed up — another challenge. Instead of creating menus on a six week cycle, they are updated weekly.
Each of the eight schools has four or five cafeteria workers alternate shifts daily.
“I can’t say enough about the staff. They’ve embraced assisting the community,” Maffe said. “They were there on the front lines from day one. They were scared and they didn't want to be there but now they can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Maffe is also finding that some staples — like granola bars, for example — which she can normally order without a problem, are almost impossible to get. Distributors who relied on business from school districts to stay afloat had to pivot when schools closed.
“We are doing the best we can with what we have in the district and what we can get,” Maffe said.
Thanks to a waiver from the U.S.Department of Agriculture, the district is reimbursed $6.38 for every bag of food it distributes, Maffe said.
The need is real and the community is expressing its gratitude. Maffe has seen photos of people holding up signs thanking the food service workers. She heard from a mother who was recovering from COVID-19 and received meals from the district.
“We got a phone call and she said what an incredible help they were to her,” Maffe said.
Salafia said the program also allows neighborhood schools and students to stay connected.
“We are a conduit. We are helping with a lot of different issues,” Salafia said.