On Monday morning, Sahuarita Unified and Continental school districts provided hundreds of free meals to children while the state's schools are closed amid coronavirus precautions.
It was the first day both districts ran their food-pickup programs, created to ensure school closures don’t create barriers to nutrition for any children in the area, whether they are part of the districts or not.
By 11 a.m., the drop off area at Wrightson Ridge School was already lined with carloads of families waiting to pick up free meals offered by SUSD. A half-hour later, the line was out Rancho Sahuarita Boulevard.
The drive-through set up moved cars smoothly, with staff handing off meals for each child present without anyone exiting their vehicle.
Three employees of Southwest Food Excellence, SUSD’s food service provider, ran the operation, providing a sack lunch and breakfast for each child in the vehicle.
Children were also provided schoolwork packets based on grade level and books donated by Dr. Nicholas Clement, Ernest W. McFarland Citizen's Chair at Northern Arizona University.
SFE employee Raul De Los Angeles said they had 500 breakfasts and lunches ready for the day and the goal was to make sure every child left with food.
“We tried to estimate and make sure everybody gets covered,” he said. “We want to get food to everybody and right now we have at least 500 meals (prepared) and we have a team in the back working to keep replenishing that because there’s no telling how many may come.”
On Monday, SUSD gave out 752 meal bags, made up of a lunch and breakfast.
Though this was just the first day of the program, parents found it an efficient process and a much-needed bit of relief during challenging times.
Kim Derose’s family are part of SUSD and she plans to continue getting free meals throughout the closure.
“I think it's wonderful the district is offering this to our children and families, and the way they have it set up, the flow is really quick,” she said. “I appreciate them taking their time to help our families out because it's a scary time for everybody and we need to work together and take care of each other.”
Parent Jesse Espinoza has three children at Wrightson Ridge and said the free meals are a service for families in the community right now.
“It's great and it's really helping us parents out a lot because there’s not much food in the stores and people are getting crazy,” he said. “It's helping us families out so much, it really is.”
He was especially thankful that printed schoolwork packets were available to help students who might not have easy access to the digital classroom formats the district will be utilizing during the closure.
“A lot of parents don't have computers or the internet and it's very hard for a lot of us,” he said. “I have internet and a computer but I have three kids on one computer and they all want their turns but it turns into a little bit of turmoil at times.”
To make these meals possible, SUSD is utilizing a federal meal program called the Summer Food Service Program/Seamless Summer Option through the National School Lunch (NSLP). It is used to provide children access to food in times of need, like the summer when school is not in session.
The district fast-tracked an application to the state to use this program to provide meals to any children in the community during the coronavirus closure.
The Continental School District had six pickup locations where drivers and food service employees distributed free meals to any child in the community who arrived.
Superintendent Roxana Rico said they handed out 250 meal bags, which each included a lunch and breakfast.
She credited the drivers, food service workers and everyone else who helped for making it run smoothly.
The busiest location was the large park at Madera Highlands.
Rico said they were prepared to give out 600 meals for the day, so they will re-evaluate this week to determine if they will reduce the number of pickup locations.
Students were also able to pick up items they needed from the school, such as computers or musical instruments.
Since Continental is a Title I district, its meals are federally funded, including the to-go meals that will be offered during the closure. Rico said they have filled out the required documents to allow them to provide the meals at locations other than the school campus.
Both districts are offering the free meals Monday through Friday through April 10, the most recent end date of state school closures mandated by Gov. Doug Ducey.