Meal program helps East Penn families amidst COVID-19 outbreak

While most of the East Penn School District community stays at home practicing social distancing, essential workers remain on the front lines, helping others get by during this time.

Part of this essential group includes the district’s food service workers. Despite state-wide school closures, all of them continue to serve breakfast and lunch to students — although it’s not the same work as it used to be.

Instead, they play a crucial role in East Penn’s Grab-and-Go Meal Program, which began shortly after the first school closure announcement. The program provides free, bagged breakfast and lunch meals to any EPSD student. Grab-and-go bags are available for pick up on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 12 to 1 p.m. at three school locations: Lower Macungie Middle School, and Alburtis and Lincoln Elementary schools. 

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One bag is provided per student, with each bag containing two breakfasts and two lunches: two meals for the pickup day, and two meals for the day in-between. On Fridays, more food is provided with the intention of lasting the duration of the weekend. According to superintendent Dr. Kristen Campbell, the goal of the program is to continue to serve students and their families healthy meals, despite the school closure.

“The fact that we were able to continue that [food service] program, certainly being sure that we were able to continue to offer lunches to families, was something that was critical to us,” Campbell said. “I think what we’ve realized is that the pandemic of COVID-19 has really impacted all families, certainly in different ways. The purpose of it really is to extend that [food] service to all East Penn families, recognizing that in times such as this, hopefully the program is a benefit to everyone.”

Initially, the program served the East Penn community each weekday, however it was shortened to three times per week on March 30. This, according to Campbell, was in response to more serious public health recommendations to stay at home and minimize outings as much as possible. Additionally, in order to follow social distancing guidelines as much as possible, families are instructed to pull in, pick up their bag(s) of food, keep a safe distance from others, and leave, similar to a drive-thru.

On each Grab-and-Go day, approximately 1,000 meals are served to EPSD students and their families by food service workers, according to Campbell. 

One of these East Penn families is the Crawfords. Emmaus High School staff assistant and mother Keri Crawford takes advantage of the Grab-and-Go program to provide meals for her two teenage sons. 

“Not only does it help out financially, but it also provides some consistency that my kids had with the school prior to the quarantine,” Crawford said. “So it’s food that they’ve had and they’re familiar with, but it’s also part of school that they can actually still have at home.”

For Crawford, grocery shopping is a riskier errand due to COVID-19 concerns. The Grab-and-Go Meal Program, to her, is a safer way to get meals. The program adds stability to her and her family’s life during quarantine. She appreciates that her sons can still experience a familiar aspect of school at home, even if it’s something as simple as cafeteria food.

“It definitely is positive considering everything that we’re going through,” Crawford said. “It’s provided some consistency for what my kids are used to as far as that lunch through school.”

Food and beverages contained in the bags come from the school’s cafeteria, including milk, orange juice, baked goods, hot and cold sandwiches, vegetables, frozen fruit cups, and lunch meat. This is part of the district and food service department’s effort to offer students and their families healthy, balanced meals in an unprecedented time of school closures.

“I think it’s one of the many ways in which the East Penn community continues to come together to provide support for our students during the pandemic,” Campbell said. “It’s critical that all of our students have the opportunity to have healthy meals during the week.”

According to Feeding Pennsylvania, one out of every seven Pennsylvanians may not be sure where their next meal will come from. The United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley reports that one in three children in the Lehigh Valley are hungry. In East Penn specifically, 21.01 and 4.21 percent of students utilize free and reduced lunch programs, respectively. 

For children who rely on school for their meals, the COVID-19 pandemic presents major obstacles, both health and economic-wise. The EPSD’s response to institute the Grab-and-Go program during this pandemic, as well as the district food service workers’ efforts, will continue to serve students and families with essential meals.

Campbell commends EPSD food service director Paul Vlasics as well as the food service workers for their essential efforts.

“[Vlasics] has done amazing work since the closure to coordinate our cafeteria employees as well as continuing with ordering of food… we are so, so, very appreciative of the work of our cafeteria employees… every single one of our cafeteria employees has been coming into our three locations.”

The Grab-and-Go Meal Program will continue to serve free bags of food every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to East Penn families.

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