With public schools shut down for at least two weeks due to COVID-19, Tulsa-area districts are prepared to start distributing meals this week in an effort to prevent student hunger.
Tulsa Public Schools has established about 40 “grab and go” meal sites at schools and other locations where children under 18 can take home a free breakfast and lunch beginning Monday.
District school buses also will provide to-go meals from approximately 170 stops throughout the city. They’ll stay at each site for about five minutes or until the last meal is served.
Both services will be available through April 3, the final day of the state-mandated shutdown of all public school districts in Oklahoma due to the spread of COVID-19. All locations and times have been posted on the district’s website at tulsaschools.org/mealsites.
Providing free meals to children during the lengthy closure is especially important at TPS, where more than 80% of students qualify for reduced-price and free meals, said Jorge Robles, the district’s chief operating officer.
“Many of our students are economically vulnerable, and a large majority of these kids count on sourcing their main meals when they’re in school,” Robles said. “While we’re closed, we are essentially providing that access, and it’s really important for us that we continue to support our students and families by finding ways to get the meals to those students while we navigate this healthcare crisis in our city and country.”
Jenks Public Schools also will begin distributing grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches Monday at the high school dining hall. The plan is for families there to pick up the district-prepared meals without leaving their cars to minimize the risk of exposure. They’ll be available for all students from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday.
Like at TPS, Jenks Public Schools spokesman Rob Loeber said the meals are necessary due to the high number of children relying on school for their only quality meal each day. About 39% of the district’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
There’s also the issue of food scarcity and depleted grocery stores leaving parents struggling to provide for their families as fear of the novel coronavirus sweeps across the state.
“This is just one less thing for people to worry about during a time when a lot of people are worried about a lot of different things,” Loeber said. “Hopefully we can take that off their plate for them.”
Numerous districts are seeking to utilize new waivers centered on continuing meal services during unexpected school closures. The Oklahoma State Department of Education has requested six waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would enable schools to leverage their participation in the federal agency’s summer meal programs.
Two have been approved so far. One allows districts to implement alternative or “grab-and-go” meal services away from school to limit exposure, while the other permits food service staff to utilize their cafeterias to prepare the meals.
At least nine Tulsa County districts have submitted applications to the state education department for utilization of the two approved waivers.
These include Union Public Schools, which intends to start offering free drive-thru meal pickups Monday at three locations: Ella Ochoa Elementary, the Union 6th/7th Grade Center and Jefferson Elementary. Two meals — breakfast and lunch — will be available for all students daily, Monday through Friday.
District employees trained in sanitation and safety will prepare the meals at the three school sites and have been told to stay home if they or anyone in their families exhibit any symptoms.
The drive-thru format is meant to protect the food-preparation teams in addition to the families, said Lisa Griffin, director of Union’s Child Nutrition Program. Employees will approach the vehicles only to count the number of children and deliver the meals.
Griffin said she has no idea how many families intend to collect the food. The prep teams at each site will produce about 200 meals the first night and are prepared to increase that number.
But she encourages families to take advantage of the service, assuring Union is well-stocked and capable of preparing as many meals as needed.
“This will help relieve some of the economic woes people are having because they’re not working right now,” Griffin said. “While shelves in grocery stores have been cleared out, we have freezers full of food and will not run out.”
Owasso Public Schools also plans to start serving cold grab-and-go meals at its high school starting Monday. Spokesman Jordan Korphage said district officials carefully discussed how best to package and distribute the food without putting anyone in danger. The meals — available for students 18 and under — can be picked up at the Owasso High School East Campus from 10 a.m. to noon.
Broken Arrow Public Schools will distribute grab-and-go meals for students beginning Monday at:
• Central Park, 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
• Sequoyah Middle School, noon to 12:30 p.m.
• Indian Springs Apartments, 1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.
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