WHITEFIELD — George and Margaret Ferguson arrive every Monday and Wednesday morning to Whitefield Elementary School, ready to load up their grey Subaru Outback with meal packs to delivery to students’ homes.

Once the packs — consisting of a couple days worth of breakfast and lunch — are inside the cooler in their Subaru’s trunk, the Fergusons jet off to deliver breakfast and lunch to the houses of students that are not attending in person classes. Within an hour they are returning to school with smiles across their faces.

“It takes a huge weight off parents, knowing that they don’t have to pick the meals up,” said Meagan Soule, the student support specialist at Whitefield Elementary, one of the schools that make up Regional School Unit 12.

Margaret and George Ferguson load up their car with meals from Regional School Unit 12 to deliver to student’s houses. Submitted photo

The Fergusons are both retired and heard about the opportunity to help the school with meal delivery through a program called “Whitefield Cares.” The pair have helped RSU 12 since the start of the academic year. Their grandson is a student at Whitefield Elementary.

“It’s quite rewarding, and the families are really appreciative,” George Ferguson said. “Each week, (the number of meals) have gone up a bit. Started out that there were three, now 10. We have a car full of lunches.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture extended the ability for all students across the country to receive free meals, regardless of income, for the rest of the academic year. Previously, the waver was due to end Dec. 31, and before that, eligibility to receive a free or reduced in price meal was determined on family income.

RSU 12’s meal program strives to make sure every one of the 900 students in the district receives a free meal. In just one month since the start of the academic year, RSU 12 has served 720 meals per day, totaling 8,791 breakfasts and 9,238 lunches up through Oct. 9.

A box of raisins is placed into a KidsPak on Thursday at the Augusta Food Bank. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

By comparison, Nutritional Director Mike Flynn said RSU 12 served 620 meals a day last year.

Without help from volunteers like the Fergusons though, RSU 12’s meal delivery program may not be as successful, according to experts.

Anna Korsen is the director of advocacy and partnerships for Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit that strives to feed every student in Maine.

She points out that due to the coronavirus, schools have had to come up with creative ways to ensure meals make it into the hands of children.

Hybrid learning methods can make it more difficult because students are in school less than in a usual year, and if they are learning from home, there is no guarantee that they will receive or pick up a meal. Added with the coronavirus screening methods that students have to do daily, even less students may be in school because of a sore throat or cough.

Becky Lamey puts a box full of KidsPaks onto a table Thursday at the Augusta Food Bank. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck in the spring, the food bank gave food products to the Augusta school system and students packed the bags and the bags were distributed in schools, according to Director Rob Moore. But now volunteers pack them at the food bank where they’re given out 9-11 a.m. Thursdays. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

RSU 12 is considered in the “green” zone by the Maine Department of Education’s color scale that entails their vulnerability to the coronavirus. If a school is in the “green” or “yellow” zone, a hybrid mix of classes are able to occur. If a school falls into the “red,” it will follow a five-day, remote schedule. Korsen worries that if this were to happen in the coming months in the state, it may be more difficult to get meals to students because there would no longer be an in-person method.

“It’s hard to say how far the food will go, and hard to say how much they can stretch that food,” she said about students taking five days worth of meals home. “Even with that happening, they (the schools) aren’t reaching all of the kids, and their meal counts are still down.”

On Friday, the Maine Department of Education released statewide numbers for the meal program. Last year in September, 1,815,443 lunches and 979,419 breakfasts were served. The numbers for this year are significantly down at 620,331 lunches and 416,761 breakfasts.

Even though free lunch is available for every student across the state, the accessibility of getting the meals has been significantly harder than in the summer.

Korsen said that a couple reasons may be the culprit for the downward trend in numbers: some districts starting late, families choosing to home-school their children resulting in a drop in enrollment, there are fewer children present in a given day because of cohorts/hybrid learning and, simply, because few districts have reported their meal counts for September 2020.

This past summer, the state saw a 200% increase in the amount of meals that students were taking home with them, Korsen said. However, even with the increase, only 32% of students that are eligible to receive the free and reduced meals are taking advantage of it — likely due to accessibility.

Part of the success of the summer meal program came with using school buses to drop off meals at houses — similar to what RSU 12 is doing with the help of the Fergusons.

“Now, since schools are in session, school buses aren’t available to get meals out because they are busing kids, and busing them more frequently,” Korsen said.

RSU 12 is made up of Chelsea Elementary School, Windsor Elementary School, Whitefield Elementary School and Somerville Elementary School.

Vicki Dill, the kitchen manager at RSU 12, said that last week when Windsor Elementary School reported a positive COVID-19 case and the schools in the district switched to two weeks of remote learning, the kitchen went from sending out 20 meal packs to 105.

“The two of us (in the kitchen) were able to maintain it, and we did have some extra hands to help pack,” Dill said. “Because we had such a successful summer program with the elementary schools this summer, it was easy for us to transfer it.”

But of course, some districts are not able to deliver meals to students by a form of transportation.

The Augusta Public Schools have a pick up time for parents on the days that students have remote learning to give students enough meals to last them until their next in-person learning day.

Additionally, the community has stepped up to aid the school on the weekends in case families need more meals or are unable to pick them up at the schools.

Becky Lamey packs KidsPaks on Thursday at the Augusta Food Bank. Volunteers pack the bags at the Augusta Food Bank where they’re given out 9-11 a.m. on Thursdays. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The Augusta Food Bank gives out a “KidsPak” on Thursday mornings from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., “no questions asked.”

According to Korsen, having parents pick up meals for their children can sometimes be an issue, especially if parents work during the window that the meals are available.

“The logistics and timing effect both sides,” Korsen said. “The nutritional staff has only so many people working and (often) can’t afford to hire additional teachers and staff to hand out the meals at different times. A lot of schools are recognizing that the timing of school pick up sites isn’t ideal, and that they have to be flexible.”

Korsen said that the ideal method to get meals out to students, in a remote learning situation, is through more staff and investing in a form of transportation to get the meals out to student’s at their houses — something that she hopes is possible with the coronavirus relief funds that schools across the state are receiving.

“The state needs to invest in transportation so the schools don’t have to take up the cost,” she said. “Nutritional programs need vehicles to get food out to kids, and we need the staff to be able to prepare that. If there were the vehicles and staff, we would be reaching more children.”

Howard Tuttle, the superintendent for RSU 12, said that the additional relief funds that the schools receives would go to any additional costs that the food program may bring to the district that would not be reimbursed by the U.S. program.

“We have staff already, but let’s say that it goes above and beyond their contract, which does happen, the (relief) funds would reimburse that,” he said, adding that the district is currently in the process of waiting for their budget to be approved by the state

However, George Ferguson said that he thinks many people in the community would be apt to help, especially if more delivery service is needed in the upcoming — he said that “there are people in the town that love to help out.”

“It takes time out of our days, and it is actually a very nice time that we get to spend together,” Ferguson said about delivering meals with his wife. “We drive around, and are able to do a good thing.”

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