CECIL COUNTY — Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) gave out 56,866 meals to students and families to cover their food needs through the Thanksgiving holiday. Dining staff distributed the Meals-To-Go breakfast and lunches at schools across the county and through six bus routes on Wednesday, Nov. 18.
“He misses his school lunches,” Rachel Bailiff said of her fourth grader. “He likes the chicken nuggets and the chocolate milk.”
Andrew had just started going to Rising Sun Elementary School (RSES) two days per week, Bailiff said, when schools went back to full virtual learning after the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate reached six percent.
“He was so sad,” she said, adding that it squashed the excitement he felt at being allowed to go to school for those two days. “Now he goes to work with me two days a week.”
Ava Harding, a RSES second grader, agreed that chicken nuggets are at the top of school lunch menu options.
“I like the pizza too,” she said as her brother, kindergartener Gabe Harding, shouted from the seat behind her that he too likes the chicken nuggets.
Schools have been offering free take-home meals during the pandemic through the National School Lunch Program, and actually cut back to only distribute on Wednesdays since schools reopened two days a week. Distribution drummed up last week in anticipation of the holiday.
CCPS Supervisor of Food & Nutrition Scott Heckert explained that they sought to provide enough meals for seven school days per student.
By his count, they distributed a daily average of just under 4,100 meals. Considering that they serve between 8,000 and 10,000 meals per day under normal circumstances, Heckert figures they reached about half of students with the meals distributed last week.
“It was quite an undertaking, and I was really proud of my team,” he said. “They were all asked to step up to the plate, and they answered the call and then some. They’ve done it without flinching since this whole thing started.”
RSES had 175 meal bundles ready, according to cafeteria manager Rebecca Roberts.
Laura Truskowsky said having lunches ready to go is terrific as she struggles to shepherd her four children through virtual learning.
“When they all have different lunch breaks… you can only do so much,” Truskowsky, from Port Deposit, said. “I can get the food ready for when they go on break.”
For Holly Miller, the food is a godsend.
“I’m a stay at home mom and my husband lost his job, so this is a huge help,” Miller, from Rising Sun, said as she accepted bundles for each of her three children.
Kelly Hacker’s kids miss their friends, teachers and face-to-face learning, and the lunches are a connection to the stability and routine school offers.
“It’s a sense of normalcy,” Hacker, from Colora, said. Favorites include Benefit bars, chicken nuggets and pizza poppers. “It’s a mozzarella stick with pizza sauce inside,” she explained.
Lauren Snyder appreciates the convenience of having food on hand, especially since the take-home meals include much-loved school favorites.
“They like the square pizzas. That’s the one they always pick out first,” Snyder, from Rising Sun, said of her 10- and 12-year-olds. “And the fresh fruit is amazing.”
Heckhert explained that his staff worked hard Monday and Tuesday last week to prepare the meals, wrapping up individual components separately.
Theresa Gorrell, a cafeteria assistant at North East High School, reported that preparing and assembling the meal bags took staff members many hours of work.
“It’s not like work, because I love my job,” she said.
At Bay View Elementary School (BVES), Christen Jones and Chris Hunsicker, the school’s kitchen manager and kitchen assistant, distributed a total of 160 bags containing 2,240 meals. Jones reported that it took a team of four cafeteria employees between 10 and 15 hours to prepare the bags, washing fresh fruit and vegetables and assembling the full meal packages.
Many of the entrees were sent home frozen with instructions for reheating so that they last through the week. Heckhert said that they do their best to accommodate student preferences — chocolate milk, for example, is popular.
“We’d rather the kids eat it, than not eat it,” he said.
Toward the end of the distribution window, which ran from 10 a.m. to noon, some locations began running out of options. Nowhere was out completely, Heckert explained, but the variety became limited as more and more parents arrived to pick up.
At Conowingo Elementary School, for example, staff directed parents to Rising Sun Middle School for the full range of options. Heckhert said they extended the distribution window there to accommodate parents who may have tried their luck at Conowingo first.
“We didn’t want people to go home and say, ‘Now my kid has to eat pizza every day,’” he said. “The kids might not be so heartbroken, but mom and dad want to give them a little bit of variety.”
Rita Scites initially went to Conowingo Elementary, where her children are enrolled, and learned that they had run out of pizza, vegetables and fruit, milk and fruit bars. Staff at Conowingo sent her to a bus drop-off in Port Deposit, between the Tome Memorial United Methodist Church and The Paw Paw Museum. Unfamiliar with Port Deposit’s Main Street, she pulled over at the post office to locate the museum.
CCPS dining staff Lisa Van de Giesen and Ellen Sunderland packed 10 meals in advance for a bus run that only had one taker at Maple Heights in Rising Sun. They relocated to Port Deposit and saw a steadier stream of parents coming through for pickup.
Scites said her children would look for the muffins, cheese and Cheerios.
“They like everything,” she said, but quickly back-tracked and noted one item. “They don’t like the pizza. I put more cheese on it and they still won’t eat it.”
Rachel Ketterlinus, whose child is a BVES fourth grader, expressed her appreciation.
“I think this is fantastic,” she said.
John Aro, the parent of a BVES student, is grateful to the district for helping parents support their students as the holidays approach. He explained that the mother of his children has had to take time off work to stay home with the youngsters as they wrestle with virtual learning.
“Things have been kind of hard,” he said. “This definitely helps us.”
The district will run its next round of meal distribution on Wednesday, Dec. 2.