Richland school district food distribution

Richland Area School District Elementary Assistant Principal Kelly Lashinsky delivers food to a truck on Thursday, April 23, 2020.

Whether rain or shine, school employees and volunteers from around the area have been gathering at predetermined locations for more than a month in order to provide free food to local students.

"It tugs at your emotions to see the number of people who are in need," Richland Superintendent Arnold Nadonley said.

His school, along with Windber and Westmont Hilltop, recently were approved for a new waiver program that allows the districts to provide meals to any student 18 years of age and younger regardless of what schools they attend.

Most regional schools were able to implement free meal plans for students as soon as the closure began in early March.

However, due to the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches in Richland and Westmont, those schools had to do targeted food campaigns.

With this new waiver, that endeavor has expanded.

"It is a good program that feeds a bunch of kids and helps maintain a connection between school and home," Westmont Superintendent Thomas Mitchell said.

Within the last month, Westmont handed out around 100 meals to income-eligible students, Mitchell said.

On Monday, when the expanded meals program began, the district provided 300 meals and 100 more signed up for Thursday's pick-up, he said.

Because the meals are first-come, first-served, Mitchell said the district uses a Google form to gauge interest and establish the number of meals needed.

'Turned upside down'

For one Westmont family, this program arrived at an opportune time.

"Our schedules, our lives are turned upside down, so having someone hand us something that's ready and easy is a blessing," Westmont mother of three Ashley Bennett said.

After the schools, were closed she said her food bill "went up astronomically."

Bennett is still working as a teacher with the Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, but her husband has been laid off because of the virus and the family doesn't qualify for free or reduced meals, she said.

Finding out about the expanded meal program on Facebook provided her family with a sigh of relief.

"We were pretty excited," Bennett said.

She went to pick up food on Monday and returned Thursday for the second round of distribution.

Safe at home

Bennett said her family usually depends on the school for breakfast and lunch and never thought much about that dependance until the meals weren't being provided anymore.

Her school-aged children, Niya, 8, and Lena, 6, have continued their education through the recently implemented online learning from the district and being able to feed them quickly without much preparation has helped out, according to Bennett.

"Having that just already made was super nice," she said.

Niya and Lena said they've enjoyed the food as well, Lena in particular because on the first day she received pancakes and cinnamon rolls.

"So I had lunch for breakfast and breakfast for lunch," Lena said.

Both girls also said they're appreciative of the service from the school because it limits their family's exposure, to others and now they don't have to go to the store as often.

"It's easier because we can just stay at home and eat our food," Niya said.

'Their basic needs'

A press release from the Pennsylvania Department of Education said the waiver eases requirements for free or reduced meal eligibility and "ensures all children have access to food."

PDE State Director for Child Nutrition Programs Vonda Ramp said in the release: “Schools and community organizations can now use recent and local economic data, including unemployment claims and business closures, to request approval from PDE to qualify as an open meal site. Once approved, they can provide meals to all children in their community, age 18 and under, for free.”

Before the launch of this program, there were 1,600 food distribution sites across the state. The department of education expects that number to climb because of this implementation.

Meal schedules vary from school to school, but a number of them provide multiple meals on distribution days, and have served thousands since the closure of classrooms.

Windber Superintendent Joseph Kimmel said his district works on a Monday and Thursday schedule, and provides between 550 and 600 meals each day.

"We know and are proud of the opportunity to assist families during this difficult time and meet one of their basic needs," Kimmel said. "The program could not be possible without the dedication of our cafeteria staff as well as district staff and volunteers that make it possible. Without their selfless efforts, this good would not be possible."

Nadonley echoed the sentiment, saying he was caught a little off guard by the number of faculty members who were willing to volunteer.

'Sobering and humbling'

Richland is also working on a Monday and Thursday schedule, and has distributed around 350 meals – with more families signing up.

Both Greater Johnstown and Forest Hills have exceeded 20,000 meals since beginning their programs.

"It is very rewarding, sobering and humbling to be able to provide meals and basic services to the community," Forest Hills Superintendent David Lehman said. "I am extremely proud of the staff, transportation providers and volunteers who have made this program a huge success."

As districts move toward the end of the academic year and some begin consideration of summer feeding programs, there's no concern about the food supply, school officials said.

Amy Arcurio, Great Johnstown superintendent, said the program there will last as long as necessary, and the district plans on providing food throughout the summer, at as many sites as possible.

The details of the summer program are still being finalized, Arcurio said.

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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