Eight schools in Frederick County will offer free breakfast and lunch to any child under age 18 for the next two weeks while public schools are closed.
Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, announced on Thursday that all Maryland public schools would be closed from March 16 to March 27 due to concerns over COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus.
With more than 5 billion school lunches being served in the U.S. in 2018, many students rely on their school cafeterias to get a hot meal during the day.
In the 2018-2019 school year, more than 2 million lunches were served in Frederick County Public Schools and more than 10,000 FCPS students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, according to Robert Kelly, senior manager of food and nutrition services at FCPS.
Therefore, Kelly said he and his staff knew that not providing meals while schools are closed was not an option, so they began preparing days before the announcement.
The program will operate much like the U.S. Department of Agriculture Summer Meals Program, with one big difference: Students will be allowed to take their meals home if they wish.
Kelly said grab-and-go lunches will be available as well as containers and other materials to hold meals.
Breakfast and lunch will be served at the following schools Monday through Friday over the next two weeks: Ballenger Creek Elementary, Crestwood Middle, Frederick High, Hillcrest Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, Monocacy Elementary, North Frederick Elementary and Waverley Elementary.
Breakfast will be served from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and lunch will be served from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each day.
Kelly said the schools were chosen based on USDA regulations that mandate sites have either 50 percent or more children who qualify for free and reduced-price meals and either attend that school or live in the surrounding area.
When asked if students in other areas of the county such as Thurmont and Brunswick are expected to travel to one of these sites to get a meal at school, Superintendent Terry Alban said staff and the Board of Education are working to install satellite sites for meals in those areas.
“Our board members said we really want to try and make sure that we are reaching the whole community,” Alban said.
For the sites that are already established, any child under the age of 18 can visit and receive a meal, regardless of where they are from or whether they qualify for FARM.
“They could be from Montgomery County, they could be from Pennsylvania, they do not need to show any form of ID. This is for all children 18 years or younger,” Kelly said.
Parents can bring young children, including toddlers, and get a meal, but parents themselves will not be able to get a meal.
Breakfast will be all cold items such as muffins or breakfast bars, and lunch will be hot and will consist of items that are popular among students such as pizza and chicken sandwiches, Kelly said.
Cafeteria workers at the chosen schools will continue to come to work and prepare food. If the volume of students is too much for the current staff to handle, Kelly said cafeteria employees from other schools are on call and ready to go in and assist if needed.
Cafeteria workers who are not on call or not on staff at the eight schools will be off for the next two weeks. Kelly said he is working with Central Office to determine whether or not those employees will continue to be paid over the closure.
Kelly also said cafeteria staff who will serve students have been given a refresher course on cleaning practices and regulations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We just have enforced that our staff is being a little more aggressive and just being cautious and more aware,” Kelly said.
He added that despite rising concerns over the coronavirus, he hopes that any and all children will take advantage of the meal service.
“I just hope they do come out. It’s free, and it’s for everybody,” Kelly said. “And now the ability to take the food home with them, that’s just a win-win, I think.”
Hermine Bernstein, a program coordinator for Blessings in a Backpack — a nonprofit that works to feed FCPS students over weekends and breaks — is also working to make sure students have meals.
Bernstein said they have about five days’ worth of food left for students but that volunteers are working to increase that to seven.
For the first week of the closure, the nonprofit will use its blizzard bags and emergency snack bags usually used for snow days to provide enough food for students.
“Our volunteers have been amazing,” Bernstein said.
The nonprofit does not have food for the second week, Bernstein said, but added that the situation is fluid. If enough food is collected for the second week, the challenge then becomes delivering that food to students since they will no longer be physically in school. But Bernstein said she, community partners and volunteers are all working to figure out plans.
A few local Frederick County restaurants have also decided to offer free lunch to school-aged children during the closure.
Canapes Catering on Highland Street in Frederick will offer free meals on weekdays over the next two weeks from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Thurmont Kountry Kitchen on Water Street will offer free meals from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. to noon every weekday over the next two weeks.
Both restaurants offer both dine-in and carryout options.