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How the Springfield Public Schools combated hunger during the pandemic

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Paul Tuthill
/
WAMC
The Springfield Public Schools had grab-and-go meal service between March 2020 and the last week of August 2021.

8.8 million grab-and-go meals were given out

During the pandemic shutdowns, the Springfield Public Schools prevented people from going hungry by providing millions of free meals.

When school buildings were ordered to close in Massachusetts in March 2020, it took just two days for a grab-and-go meal distribution operation to ramp up in Springfield.

During the next 17 months – before the meal service shifted to accommodate the return to in-person learning – 8.8 million meals were given out.

“It is a staggering number,” said Abby Getman-Skillicorn, Student Engagement Manager at Springfield Public Schools Food Services.

She said there were 10 schools where the grab-and-go meals were distributed.

“We served breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack for seven days-worth of meals,” said Getman-Skillicorn. Meals were also delivered to families living in homeless shelters outside the district.

The meals were prepared from scratch by Home Grown Springfield – the school department’s culinary and nutrition program -- and packaged at the program’s central kitchen and distribution center which opened in 2019.

The cost of the meals was covered by federal nutrition programs. COVID-19 relief money was used to purchase some additional food preparation equipment, said Getman-Skillicorn.

“We made a really big shift during COVID to purchase equipment to allow us to prepackage meals into re-heatable trays, which worked out well for families taking the meals home and now we are using that same setup to reheat meals deliver them to the classroom,” she said.

In a city where 80 percent of the children live in families whose income puts them below the federal poverty line, the schools play an outsize role in preventing real hunger.

Lydia Rodriguez, Communications Director for Home Grown Springfield, said she saw the impact firsthand at the grab-and-go meal sites.

“ It was extremely rewarding because parents coming to pick up the meals would on a regular basis tell us how grateful they were, so our team felt really good about what we were doing and just continued every day,” she said.

Now that schools are back in-person, meals are being served in the classrooms, not the cafeterias, because of concerns about spreading COVID.

There are also supply chain problems that have affected school food services across the country. Locally, that has meant occasional shortages of sandwich breads and milk, said Getman-Skillicorn.