Jay Townsend, left, and Lea Pono carry bags of meals to a family in a car at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland on Friday. Townsend is a food service technician and Pono a bus driver for the Portland School district. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Before the car even pulls through the driveway, Jay Townsend knows the order for the family inside.

“This is two kids and three adults,” he says to his co-workers at Lyman Moore Middle School. They grab five bagged lunches and hand them to Townsend, who has them ready to go when the car reaches the bus loop.

“Good morning, good morning,” he says to the family inside. “How are you today?”

One by one vehicles are greeted with the same cheerfulness, efficiency and willingness to help at Lyman Moore, one of 10 food distribution sites in the Portland Public Schools that have been set up to provide breakfast and lunch to students in the wake of coronavirus shutdowns.

It’s a similar story at meal sites across Portland, where staff members have served more than 47,000 meals since schools closed in mid-March. The service is a critical one for families facing food insecurity and those who are now struggling because of unemployment and other challenges posed by the virus.

But as hard as the district is working, there are still concerns they’re missing students. In January, when students were reporting in person to school, Portland was serving about 5,600 meals per day, including both breakfast and lunch.

About 78 percent, or 4,400, of those meals were to students who qualify for free or reduced-price food. Now the district serves about 1,460 free meals per day, raising questions about whether some students who need food are falling through the cracks.

“We’re always concerned about our students’ needs,” said Jane McLucas, director of food service for Portland Public Schools. “We’re trying to reach out to them even more and are still adding sites to reach those families who might not be coming.”

The reasons why families might not be accessing food right now are varied. According to a survey the district sent to all households in early April, 99 percent of people know the meals are available and 91 percent know where the distribution sites are.

Theresa Stanhope points out an item for Lea Pono to include in the bag of food she is putting together for a family at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland on Friday. The Portland school district is not handing out as many free meals as when school was in session. At Lyman Moore, staff hand out between 150-200 meals a day, making it the busiest meal distribution location in the city. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

But only 9 percent pick up school meals daily and 70 percent have not picked up meals at all. Fifty-three percent of Portland’s 6,750 students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Of the 2,945 households in the school district, only 603, or 20 percent, responded to the survey. Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana said that while there’s no way of knowing if the results are truly representative of the district, the participation rate is consistent with other surveys the district has done and does provide some insight into the need for food and barriers to access.

According to the survey, 75 percent of people have access to other sources of food; 5 percent lack transportation to come get the food; 12 percent are afraid to leave their homes; and 10 percent are concerned about food prepared by others. Another 17 percent also expressed interest in having meals delivered, so the district is exploring setting that up, Botana said.

Portland schools have also added more meal sites to improve access in different neighborhoods. The district added its 10th location at Reiche Elementary School last week and announced an 11th site at the Bayside Anchor housing development that will open Monday.

That site is being run in conjunction with the Portland Housing Authority, which had reached out to the district out of concern students in the area were not accessing meals, McLucas said.

The trends Portland is seeing are not unlike what is happening in some other places around the state.

While school meal programs sprang into action following coronavirus shutdowns, many, but not all, are seeing fewer students eat school lunch, said Anna Korsen, director of advocacy and partnerships with Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit working to end child hunger in Maine.

At the same time many schools are seeing more students access breakfast, either because it is being delivered or pre-packaged and served with lunch.

And while the number of meals served in some places may be less now than when school is in session, Korsen said it is often exceeding the numbers for other times when school is out, like summer vacation.

“Of course there’s always the concern there are children in need of food and they’re not getting access to it,” she said. “I believe that based on what happens when school is out that we’re seeing an increase right now in food access.”

Among about 130 school districts currently receiving emergency funds from Full Plates Full Potential to increase food access, the number of students accessing daily meals has jumped from 14,710 in July 2019 to 59,257 currently. The number of meal sites statewide is nearly 700, compared to 467 last summer, Korsen said.

Still, some staff members in Portland schools are worried about the students they’re used to seeing in the cafeteria who aren’t coming to meal sites now.

Theresa Stanhope, left, and Jay Townsend put food items into a box for a family at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland on Friday. The Portland school district is not handing out as many free meals as when school was in session. At Lyman Moore, staff hand out between 150-200 meals a day, making it the busiest meal distribution location in the city. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I wish more people would come out,” said Nancy McAdam, food service manager for the district. “There’s no judgment. This is a time when community is coming together and we’re all here for each other. There’s no stigma attached to it. You don’t want to cook tonight? Come get a meal.”

On a slow day at King Middle School last week, food service team leader Judy Demo wondered aloud where her students were. She placed a crate of leftover milk and fruit from the day before outside the school and encouraged those families that did come by to take home extras.

“I just don’t feel enough people, enough kids are coming to get the lunches and I really have no idea (why), unless they’re afraid to come or what,” Demo said. “The whole idea is we do not turn anybody away, nobody.”

The meals in Portland are free to anyone. No identification is required to pick them up and parents don’t have to bring their children with them. And while the meals are aimed mostly at children under 18, adults are not turned away.

More than 4,700 of the breakfasts and lunches served so far have gone to adults.

Demo and other staff members at meal sites said the rainy weather and the start of Ramadan, a holy month in which Muslims fast during the day, may have kept some people away last week. They also said some families don’t want to take food because they are worried others need it more.

From the back seat, Emerson Hart, 7, waves to Theresa Stanhope, left, and Jay Townsend as Townsend talks with Chad Hart as he picks up meals for his children at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland on Friday. Hart, who teaches at Riverton School, said that he appreciates being able to pick up the meals. “It’s been a life-saver,” he says. “Not having to make lunches while trying to work from home has been a huge help.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For many, though, the school meals are a lifeline. Sue and Robert Sylvain, who have a daughter in the fifth grade at Ocean Avenue School, said they normally pack her lunch. On Tuesday they stopped by King, though, to pick something up.

“I have no income, so this is a big deal for us just to keep afloat,” said Robert Sylvain, who does freelance video production and hasn’t been getting work the last month.

At Lyman Moore, staff sometimes add a little candy to the lunch bags for kids. They offer up extras like hand pies and pastries donated by Rosemont Market. And they make small talk asking people about their lives.

Celia Mantovani, who has two sons in Portland schools and works as a Portuguese interpreter, was supposed to start a new job, but then the virus struck, putting her employment on hold. She has been coming to the school almost every day.

“It’s making a lot of difference for us,” Mantovani said. “They are being awesome. They are being amazing. They not only provide the meals, they cheer us every day. They are giving us a lot of encouragement and we are very grateful.”

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