SKOWHEGAN — Some parents say they have been surprised by the meager or unhealthy meals their children have received from Maine School Administrative District 54 during the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials are defending their efforts, however, saying the district, which includes Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield, has received only a few complaints, and is working diligently to provide nutritious meals to students who are being kept home because of the virus.

One parent, Jennifer Day of Canaan, who has a child at Bloomfield Elementary School and another at North Elementary School, said she and about 10 other parents, who wish to remain anonymous, came together several weeks ago. They discussed how the school meals either contained past-dated food, were missing items or had little nutritional value, Day said.

“A person who I know had posted a meal that they had received online, which mirrored what we had received, and she was attacked online,” Day said. “She was told she should be grateful for what’s being done.”

Schools across Maine have been delivering packaged meals to households over the past few months since the coronavirus pandemic forced closure of the state’s school buildings, where students would normally receive breakfast and lunch.

About 44% of Maine’s 180,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because they come from lower-income households. Skowhegan-area schools participate in a universal lunch and school breakfast program that follows U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, enabling all students to participate in the breakfast and lunch program at no cost.

Jennifer Day of Canaan took this photograph of breakfast sent by MSAD 54 for her two children. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Day

Jana Wacome, the district’s nutrition director, said the meals are prepared at Mill Stream Elementary School, Skowhegan Area Middle School and Skowhegan Area High School. The elementary school is able to prepare 1,300 meals a day; the middle school, 1,700; and the high school, 1,800.

To date, Assistant Superintendent Jon Moody said more than 340,000 meals have been sent to MSAD 54 families. Buses used to deliver meals have been driven more than 37,200 miles, and more 200 school staff members have helped make it all happen.

School officials say they have received maybe three complaints since COVID-19 required the district to start sending meals to students’ homes. One complaint was in response to expired products that families received during the first few weeks, which Moody said was resolved.

Wacome said she has 20 volunteers who prepare the breakfasts and lunches. Breakfast typically includes cereal or a bakery item, fruit, juice and milk, while lunch offers a diverse menu available online.

She said the 22 buses used to deliver meals are staffed by a school administrator or an educational technician, who hands out the meals at each stop.

“There are challenges associated with the volume of meals we are producing,” Wacome wrote in an email, “and I’m proud of my staff and how they have stepped up to serve this community need during the pandemic.”

Day, however, said she still has concerns. She said that when the meal delivery program was in its early stages, her children received cheese cups that were a month past due. More recently, she said, her family has received meals that had little substance, just snacks. Additionally, on a couple of occasions, Day said, her family received a lemon and lime wedge as a fruit serving for her children.

Jennifer Day in Canaan took this photograph of lemon and lime wedges that have twice been the fruit serving in meals provided her two children by MSAD 54. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Day

“If I were counting on this meal for my child, it’s just not enough.” Day said, adding that sometimes the meals do not contain enough protein.

As example, Day pointed to days when a single-serving bag of chips and marinara sauce were provided as lunch for her two small children.

“I understand that the school is probably meeting the requirements,” Day said, “but the people packaging the meals — nobody saw this (lemon and lime wedge) and thought, ‘Is this for real?’ We can do better for our children.”

Day emphasized her complaints are not intended to cast a negative light on MSAD 54’s efforts. Instead, she hopes her concerns will push district officials to do better.

“I went to school here,” Day said. “I love Skowhegan. I cannot remember having these kind of school meal issues when I was a student.”

Day said that while she has issues with the district’s meal delivery program, she has not contacted school officials to share her concerns. Instead, she has spoken with another member of the community whom she thought would be able to help.

“When I initially received the cheese that was out of date, I reached out to someone else, thinking she would be a little bit of outreach,” Day said. “Her response back to me from the nutritional director was that (the district) can send out-of-date items on particular things. I know a lot of people are afraid of backlash for speaking up.”

Chelsey Carrier of Skowhegan has three children at home who attend North Elementary School, Bloomfield Elementary School and Margaret Chase Smith School. Since the beginning of the meal delivery program, Carrier said, the meals have met or exceeded her expectations and allowed her to keep a snack bin containing school food her children were not able to finish.

“I think it’s been incredible,” Carrier said. “We’ve always been happy and haven’t had any concerns. For a while, we were getting stuff that we couldn’t find in stores, and it’s convenient having it dropped off at our home.”

Carrier said she and her children meet the bus on delivery days. It has become a part of their routine and something they enjoy.

Earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, Carrier said, it was hard finding certain staples, including milk, at the grocery store. It has also been difficult for her and many families to go to the grocery store, given the recommendation that families send only one person to do the shopping.

Carrier, who assists with the Skowhegan food backpack program, said she spoke earlier in the pandemic with many families who were afraid to take advantage of the meal delivery program because they felt they would be taking from families who needed the food more or believed shame or a stigma came with accepting free food.

“The more that people use this program, the more it is normalized,” Carrier said. “Every family that I know in the district is using it, and we still need the bus because it gives us something to look forward to. There is something to be said for the buses here. My kids love it and I love it, too, because sometimes I don’t want to prepare meals every single day.”

Moody said although the district has received few complaints about the meal delivery program, it does not mean it cannot be improved. He said his last communication with a concerned parent was about six weeks ago. Moody said it was addressed and the parent thanked the district for having taken action.

“We’re putting out roughly 4,500 meals a day,” Moody said, adding that Wacome, the district’s nutrition director, tries to have everyone receives the same nutritious meals.

“It’s tough in any situation in any organization. With almost 600 employees, it’s tough to try to figure things out when people don’t talk to you. This isn’t that different than some of the other things that have come our way — even issues around the mascot.”

Day said although her family does not rely on the district-provided meals, she is worried about families for whom the food is essential to their daily nutrition — especially if the meals they are receiving are similar to some of those Day’s children have received.

“We don’t want to sound ungrateful — because there are people who count on this — but my concern is that it goes beyond these to-go meals,” Day said.

“You might have people that aren’t making complaints to the school, because they don’t want to seem ungrateful or they don’t notice it because they work and are not home when (the meals) are delivered.”

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