By Mindy Lucas
Last spring, when S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster gave the order to close all South Carolina schools due to COVID-19, Beaufort County School District’s food service staff, without having to be asked, went in to work that very same day.
It was a Sunday and normally employees don’t come in until Monday to prepare meals.
But these “lunchroom ladies” as they are sometimes lovingly called, felt compelled to make sure school children across Beaufort County would still have a meal come Monday.
“They call them their babies,” said Larry Wilson, District Manager for Sodexo’s On-Site Service Solutions team, which provides food services to the district.
As Wilson explains, it took a little creative thinking and a whole lot of people willing to regroup to make it happen, but the day after the shutdown the district was able to open 12 distribution sites at schools across the county. By weeks end, it was utilizing school buses to deliver meals to the sites.
It was important to do, district officials say, since many children, whether there’s a pandemic on or not, rely on meals provided through the National School Lunch Program.
A federally assisted meal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National School Lunch Program provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to school children each day.
In South Carolina, more than 70 million lunches were served during the 2019-2020 school year through the program, with federal funding totaling more than $200 million.
In Beaufort County, more than half of the student population, or 56 percent, enrolled in public schools rely on free and reduced meals for both breakfast and lunch or the bulk of their nutrition, said Wilson.
“I think it’s indicative of the reality of the situation prior to COVID,” he noted.
Asked if he has seen an increase in food insecurity due to COVID, Wilson said he could only speak to his role with the district which is “feeding needy children” every day.
“COVID or no COVID, these children are out there,” he said.
While the percentage of those eligible for the lunch program in the district has hovered around 56 percent for the last few years, according to data from the S.C. Department of Education, it remains to be seen if that rate will be impacted any by COVID, or a down economy, once COVID subsides district and state officials said.
What is clear is the pandemic has thrown a wrench into how meals are usually distributed.
Normally, school districts across the country begin their lunch programs through the National School Lunch Program at the start of each school year. However, at the end of last summer, the USDA, took the unprecedented step of extending its Summer Meal Program, through the end of the year.
The Summer Meal Program offers free meals and snacks to any child under age 18, regardless of their situation, usually when school is not in session. For many children, it helps bridge the gap until the school year begins.
The move to extend their summer program further out was designed to provide children with access to nutritious food “no matter what the situation is on the ground as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the USDA said in a news release in August.
Back in Beaufort County, while the district’s food service employees were scrambling to come up with innovative measures to be able to still get meals to children, the district also had to adapt to what was being delivered, Wilson said.
The district distributes food to 41 feeding sites which includes not only schools, but Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA and other approved sites.
Prior to COVID, elementary school age children generally received “home style” meals suited to their age, while high school students were provided more portable style meals such as sandwiches or “grab and go” meals.
During the shutdown the district had to adapt and switch to more portable meals or meals that could be picked up and taken home. In addition, once schools began opening again, or switched to hybrid models of education, the district switched to delivering meals in containers to classrooms, so students wouldn’t have to leave the room.
All in all, since schools shut down in March, the district has provided over 1.8 million free meals to its students through Feb. 9, district officials said.
It continues to operate under the Summer Meal Program and will begin a new year under the program in March.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
If you or someone you know would like information on the Summer Meal Program, call the school district at (843) 322-0800. Information is also available online at www.beaufortschools.net.