On Sunday, March 15, School District of Fort Atkinson officials decided not to have students return to classes that Monday, closing school buildings two days ahead of the governor’s mandated date of March 18.
By mid-morning the next day, the district already was cranking out free meals for pickup for all children in the community whose families wished to take advantage of that offer. Distribution took place at two district schools.
Free-meal distribution continued through the district’s spring break in late March, even though that expense typically is not reimbursed by the state.
Then last week, the district switched to meal delivery, utilizing the school bus company, Double 3 Transportation.
On April 1, the free service went delivery-only.
Christina Oswald, director of nutrition services for the School District of Fort Atkinson, said that officials acted swiftly to serve what they felt was a growing need.
“School officials met Sunday the 15th and made the decision to close,” she said. “We decided that it was in the best interest of our students to close right away rather than waiting until the 18th.
“Then at 11 a.m. on Monday, we were out on the distribution sites providing free meals for children,” Oswald said.
In the meantime, district officials had to act fast to inform families of the planned free meal service and to change how the food service program worked to accommodate carryouts.
“We sent an email to families right away letting them know that the schools would be closed as of Monday, and any child under 18 who needed meals could pick them up at Barrie or Luther Elementary,” Oswald said.
That day, not quite 24 hours after the decision to close schools was made, the district served 120 students, providing sack lunches plus breakfasts for the next day, for all participants.
As time went on, the counts kept getting higher as more and more families decided to take advantage of the free service.
Some of this growth occurred as word spread about the option. However, there’s no doubt that as time went on, more and more families faced financial constraints as they were furloughed or laid off from their jobs or their hours were cut.
As the program evolved, coordinators continued to look at community needs. Hearing that some people were unable to come to the distribution sites, as some children were at home while their parents worked, they began to consider other options.
“We did have some kids walk or bike to the distribution sites to pick meals, but we wanted to limit the (amount of public congregation) at the sites. It’s hard to maintain proper social distancing in those circumstances,” Oswald said.
Meanwhile, the bus company got in touch with the district to offer its services in any way it could help — thus allowing its employees to continue working.
In 48 hours’ time, officials had worked out a new system for home delivery of meals.
“We started with around seven employees a day, two at each site and two to three back in the district kitchen,” Oswald said.
“At that time, we had no actual signup, so it was hard to estimate how many people would be picking up meals,” she said. “When we started taking counts for delivery, we had a much better idea of the numbers we were serving.”
Delivery started March 23 and as of April 1, the district went to all delivery.
“We scheduled meals to continue right through spring break,” Oswald said. “We didn’t break. We felt the need in the community was too great and some people were really depending on us.”
Oswald said the district made this decision regardless of its ability to ever receive compensation from the USDA for those meals.
“We didn’t know if we’d ever be able to be remunerated, but with the reality that so many families were facing, we felt we needed to continue,” Oswald said.
Since the program started March 16, the numbers have grown tenfold from 120 students per day (or 240 meals) to 1,200 students per day (or 2,400 meals.)
There are no restrictions on who qualifies for meals. People don’t have to meet any income guidelines. They don’t have to previously have qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. They don’t even have to have attended the Fort Atkinson public schools.
Anyone in the community who is 18 or younger — right down to babies — qualifies.
“If this meal is the difference between a family being able to pay their other bills or not, we want them to take advantage of it,” Oswald said.
“There’s this feeling out there, ‘well, there’s always another family that’s needier,’” she said. “No ... everyone is able to participate.”
Oswald said the program has received great community support.
Not only has the food service received personal thank-yous and cards from youngsters, but the program has garnered a lot of community donations.
Girl Scout troops have donated cookies. Pizza Hut catered meals to the hard-working food service staff. Local businesses have donated coupons or freebies for children to enjoy.
Oswald said that the district had been providing hot meals, but now, for both safety and convenience, it’s delivering items cold.
That doesn’t mean it’s limited to sandwiches and other cold fare, however. Rather, the components for microwavable hot meals are included in the delivery.
“We aren’t sending anything that has to go in an oven, but we figure most kids can use a microwave safely, and the items are all fully pre-cooked,” Oswald said.
Meanwhile, said she and her department have tried to make the meals fun.
“We have tried to incorporate some of the kids’ favorites,” she said. “One of the highlights so far has been a pizza snack pack, kind of a build-your-own-pizza,” she said.
Another favorite was a make-our-own-yogurt parfait kit that included yogurt, granola and fruit.
Chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes were a hit as well, she said.
The swift turnarounds in the style of service and the types of food offered have brought some challenges, Oswald said.
“There have been some supply chain difficulties, not so much with the food itself, but it’s been hard to find all of the packaging,” she said.
Helping boost the district’s ability to extend its food service in this unprecedented way, Oswald applied for and received a grant from “No Kid Hungry.”
The district received $22,000 from this national organization.
“At the time I applied, we were serving around 300 meals a day and we estimated this would go on for about a month’s duration,” Oswald said. “Now we’re serving three times that amount and we know it will be going on for much longer than that.”
The food service director tipped her hat to the other schools all around the country that are stepping up to serve their communities and keep children fed during this unprecedented time.
“We do not have end dates scheduled on our calendars,” Oswald said. “We will do this for as long as it’s necessary.”