As part of Pennsylvania’s efforts to slow down COVID-19, the state’s K-12 schools are closed for the rest of the year. Some school districts, including the State College Area, have stepped in to help families make sure children are still getting enough to eat. WPSU’s Anne Danahy spoke with the district’s food service director, Megan Schaper, about the need, and how she and her staff are meeting it by packing hundreds of meals.
More information on the State College Area School District program is available on the district's website.
Anne Danahy: State College Area School District has seen a really high demand for its free meal programs since school buildings were closed. How many meals are you preparing and giving out?
Megan Schaper: So we are preparing just a little over a thousand meals and that's going to be for about 400 families.
Danahy: Was that a surprise to you?
Schaper: It was. Um, we've been serving meals now for three weeks since schools have been closed, but we've been going out to three different locations in the community. And on average in those locations we were serving about 550, um, meals per day. So I did expect it to go up a little bit with the, the convenience of being able to get everything one day for the week instead of having to come in every day. But I really, I didn't expect it to jump that much. But, um, we're glad to be able to serve the community and, and right now in these uncertain times, it's nice to know that these services can be here to help support our families.
Danahy: And so you moved from providing breakfast and lunch every day to these weekly meal kits? Is that right?
Danahy: Why are you doing that?
Schaper: Well, a lot of families do depend on school meals to help feed their children during the school year. Whether they're eligible for subsidized meals or they're even not eligible for subsidized meals. Still meals in schools are really an economic choice for families and um, a way to save money and stretch the food budget. So with schools closed and children home, you know, every day, um, having meals available just helps with the family budget for food.
Danahy: And are the meals you're making available to anyone who wants to get them or is it only for families who meet certain income qualifications?
Schaper: Um, they are available to anybody. This is part of the Summer Food Service Program. So during the school year, um, meals are offered through the National School Lunch Program in an emergency school closure it's the Summer Lunch Program that steps in and starts taking care of families. So the Summer Meal Program is intended to serve anybody who wants to take advantage. Of course the intent is to support families who really need it, but, but anybody can take advantage.
Danahy: And so you've said it was unexpectedly high demand. Can you just talk a little bit about what you were expecting and what it was like when you thought, Oh my gosh, a lot of people are....
Schaper: Right. Well, one and we are just at such an unprecedented time right now. I mean, none of us have a baseline to know what to expect with, with what's happening in our country right now. You know, I really didn't know what to expect. Again, I think what I was thinking mostly is the fact that because this is the first time we're doing it on a, on a weekly basis. So not only are we providing meals for 400 families, but we're providing them breakfast and lunch for five days. So you multiply all that out and we're doing over 9,000 meals, um, when we do this first distribution. So my concern was the logistics of are we going to be going to be able to pull it off? But, um, we've been packing meals for the last two days and we're, we're ready to go. We're in good shape for when we do the distribution and I, I think we're ready to take care of families and make it work well.
Danahy: What's it like for you and your workers, the people who are helping out packing all those meals?
Schaper: I mean I really was a little concerned when all of this started because of course we're all being told to stay at home and, and, and practice social distancing. So asking my staff to come in and help with this, I was a little concerned that, um, people might be resistant. I have been just, I shouldn't have been surprised cause I know what, what wonderful people we have. People who work in school cafeterias just tend to be good people who absolutely... The kids who come into their cafeteria are their kids and they love them and they want to take care of them. My staff are 100% behind coming in and helping to do this. Um, we have a staff of about 90 people. So we were able to split them into teams and over about a seven or eight week period everybody's coming in to work one week and they're just wonderful. The first week, um, we were out, um, I had a mother send me an email telling me that not only was her child thrilled to be able to get a meal, but he was thrilled to be able to see his cafeteria person, um, at the site serving him. And she just thought, you know...she actually had to like tell him, "No, you can't go hug her." You know, just she said it provided him with, with some normalcy in what just is such a strange, strange time for everybody. So.
Danahy: And it sounds like you've even had to scale it back since then. I'm taking it people are going to drive through and just pick up the week supply rather than coming more in person on a daily basis.
Schaper: Right. And that's exactly what we were looking at. Not exposing our staff to people any more than we need to and not exposing families. You know, letting everybody stay at home as Governor Wolf has asked us to do as much as possible.
Danahy: And so you're expecting to be able in the upcoming weeks to actually meet the more demand?
Schaper: I think we are, um, preparing and packing the meals over the last couple of days went very, very smoothly. I planned on having people here for a full work day and both days we were done before lunchtime and sent people home. So, um, we're, we're ready to go. Now it's just going to be traffic control. If the traffic control works out, we're golden.
Danahy: And what's in a typical meal kit?
Schaper: So in order to be able to do this really efficiently, they are getting five days worth of breakfast and lunches. The lunch is going to be, um, five servings of the same thing. So it may be a matter of, you know, maybe the child is going to eat pizza five days during the week or it may be a matter that this is the family meal. And that helps stretch the budget to pay for other, other food. Or if a family has multiple children, parents have the option to order multiple kinds of, of meal kits. So this week we were offering pizza, popcorn chicken and Turkey hoagies. So they're getting five servings of that entree. They're getting some apples, some clementines, apple sauce, um, frozen fruit cups, fresh carrots, um, some lettuce and tomatoes to go with the hoagies. Some of the kits have frozen corn going in them. And then we have some dessert treats going in.
Danahy: Nice. So you've got some variety there.
Schaper: Right. And then they're also getting five breakfasts. And that is more of an assortment. They're getting some cereal, a bagel and a little cinnamon roll.
Danahy: I mean, it must make you happy to be able to continue to do your job even under the situation that we're in.
Schaper: Oh, absolutely. I mean this is, this is what I do. This is what my, my staff do. We love being able to support kids and making sure they have healthy good food to eat. And, um, so it's trying times right now, but it's nice that we're able to continue to do what our mission really is.
Danahy: Megan Schaper, thank you so much for talking with us.
Schaper: Yeah, you're very welcome. Thank you for your interest. And it was, it was nice talking to you.