Despite the mandated closure of Maryland schools over a week ago, kids and parents are still flocking to public school sites — not to drop students off for a day full of learning, but to pick up food to fill bellies that would otherwise go empty.
To abate childhood hunger during school closings brought on by the COVID-19 public health crisis, the state is providing kids and teens three meals and a snack per day, including foods from across the pyramid — fruits, vegetables, milk, grains and meat or meat-substitutes.
“They’re similar to the meals that we serve during the day in school,” said State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen B. Salmon at a news conference last week.
She said school officials were expecting to serve nearly 100,000 meals over the two-week closure period.
As a steady line of cars pulled up before tents parked outside of Gaithersburg Middle School Friday, drivers rolled down their windows to order from a woman clad in a medical mask who would then yell through bumping reggaeton music to other volunteers at the meal station.
In assembly-line fashion, the cars would roll a few feet to another volunteer who, through gloved-hands, gave them plastic bags filled with nutritious food.
The drive-thru isn’t the only method that participating schools have adopted.
At Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School in Laurel, parents pull up in the parking lot where their kids hop out and run to the door to grab similar bags full of food from volunteers waiting just inside the entryway.
All of this is an extension of the Maryland Summer Meals program, which last summer season had just short of 600 participating sites.
According to the summer meals website, the federally funded initiative reimburses institutions that provide nutritious food to kids living in areas where 50% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals while school is not in session.
Data collected by the Maryland State Department of Eduction’s Office of School and Community Nutrition Programs shows that 42.45% of Maryland public school students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches during this school year.
The number of these meal locations in operation throughout Maryland during the pandemic has been growing. At the beginning of last week, there were around 130 in operation. As of Monday evening, 501.
School districts get the word out to kids and their families online.
Several school systems have unavoidable pop-up windows on their website homepages while most publish meal site updates on their Facebook pages — some of which get over 100 shares.
Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala told Maryland Matters in an email that the school district spreads the word through social media, but also in emails, phone calls and texts sent through the county’s Alert Montgomery system.
Meal site updates are available for schools statewide on the Maryland State Department of Education’s Nutrition Facebook page.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) said that Maryland was one of the first states that resolved to close public schools in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.
During the same news conference last week, Salmon said her decision to shutter schools was made to allow officials time to determine the next steps should the public health crisis continue.
Hogan said that the state superintendent has applied for a federal waiver to fund the free meal programming during the two-week closure.
Salmon added at the time that the waiver had yet to be approved, but that the state would proceed with the program, regardless.
According to the Office of School and Community Nutrition’s website, if the state is granted the waiver, the federal government would pay for meals served at sites in areas where less than 50% of students qualify to receive free or reduced-price meals, allowing more locations to open and more hungry children to be fed.
It seems unlikely that Maryland schools will re-open following the mandated two-week closure period. Virginia announced Monday that schools there would remain closed through the academic year.
In an Annapolis news conference Monday, Hogan issued several new directives to protect public health, but did not address the school calendar.
Regardless of the length of the closure period, Onijala said that Montgomery County will proceed with the program for as long as possible.
She said that by the end of last week over 87,000 meals had been handed out and that she was sure they would hit the 100,000 mark by Monday’s end.
“We will continue to serve students for as long as we are allowed to do so!” Onijala wrote.