PARIS — With schools closing due to the coronavirus – at first for two weeks, now for six weeks and maybe longer – SAD 17 made the immediate decision that if its students could not get their breakfast and lunch at school, they would be fed some other way.

Many school districts in Maine have set up central locations for parents and their kids to come collect their meals. SAD 17 is one of the handful that determined the best way to distribute school lunches was to deliver them by bus.

SAD 17 school buses being loaded with food to deliver to bus stops for its students. Carrie Graiver Hart – Facebook

“We have switched our school lunch program to a modified version of how it works during the summer,” said SAD Food Service Director Jodi Truman during a phone interview last Friday, after she and her staff had wrapped up their meal plan for this week. “It required working with the Maine Department of Education for waivers that allow us to provide meals offsite from school grounds.”

Because more than half of SAD 17 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, the district is allowed to provide free meals for all between the ages of two and 18 through its summer program. That allowance has been extended to meet nutritional needs during the currently public health crisis.

The process to make meals available was quickly planned and executed, Truman said. Not only could families pick up meals at each of the schools in the eight towns that make up SAD 17, administrators determined to provide delivery service for it.

“We are handling it like a regular bus run on a two-hour delay schedule,” SAD 17 Transportation Director Dave Fontaine said. “We go to every established elementary school stop and stop at any home that has students waiting for us.”

“We’re operating on a schedule that the kids are used to,” Truman added. “Keeping it as routine as possible.”

The school meal bus run is operating twice a week, starting from Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in South Paris. Last week deliveries were done on Tuesday and Thursday. Truman said that 2,068 meals were distributed the first day and 9,234 on the second run.

On Monday Truman had three days’ worth of breakfast and lunch meals packed and ready to go. A crew of up to eight staff members loads each bus, which has two to four staff members assigned to handle ‘distribution’ at the individual stops. The buses roll out on their regular routes though each town by 8:45 a.m.

On Thursday the district is delivering provisions to go through Friday. Truman expects this will be the standard process for the duration of school closures.

“We are limiting it to cold lunches,” she said. “Lunch is sandwiches with a choice of fruit and vegetable. We got a little fancy with a taco meal, but it was still packed as a cold lunch. We’re also providing choices of milk and juice.”

Once each bus has driven its regular route it heads to the school it normally services, arriving between 11:30 a.m. and noon. At each location staff gets to work unloading remaining meals and distributing them to families who have come to the school to pick up their breakfasts and lunches.

Two thank you notes SAD 17 Food Service Director that Jodi Truman has received during school bus lunch delivery. Submitted photo

“This has been really cool to do,” said Truman. “The kids along the route have been so thankful. They are happy to see their regular drivers. Everyone has to maintain distance, but lots of kids have made signs and drawn pictures to say thank you.

“There was never a question of what we needed to do. It is important to keep things as constant as possible for our kids. Everyone has jumped in to work together to get the job done.”

Each of SAD 17’s 24 school buses has been pressed into meal delivery service. The work for meal delivery extends beyond the school kitchen. Fontaine said that as each of the buses return back to the Transportation Garage in Norway it undergoes a thorough cleaning.

“We are disinfecting nightly,” he said. “Following guidelines set by Maine Center for Disease Control.”

The effort of SAD 17 to feed its students has not been lost on the community. Posts on the district’s Facebook page about the process have been shared more than 200 times and gotten hundreds more likes and comments of appreciation and love.

Shelley Newcomb of Norway is one of those thankful parents. She has two children who attend Guy E. Rowe School in Norway and a seventh-grader at Oxford Hills Middle School in South Paris. The bus stops at the end of their driveway and delivers their lunches to them.

“They look forward to seeing the bus come,” she said. “We all really appreciate it, and it’s been a little exciting for them to experience.”

Newcomb said her kids are taking the school closure in stride. They have been doing their homework during the day while her mother watches them. When she gets home from work they log into their Google classrooms together to work on assignments.

She says it has been a priority to make sure the kids get at-home recess time too, a chance to ride their bikes and get fresh air a couple times a day. She has been able to coordinate with her neighbors so children from the different families maintain their social distancing.

“SAD 17 has been awesome through all of this,” Newcomb said. “They are doing a wonderful job to get the kids what they need.”


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