When San Benito High School announced it would close on March 13 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest question facing Food Service Supervisor Jim Lewis and his staff was how to ensure that all students in need would have the chance to receive nutritious meals.
According to Lewis, there are about 1,800 students who qualify to receive free and reduced lunch at the high school this year. He and his staff were also aware that as people continue to shelter in place and not return to work, there may be more children in the community who need access to food.
With support from the school district and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, Lewis and his team got to work.
“The USDA allowed schools in our position to get a waiver to get onto the summer feeding program, thus we will get funded through that program,” Lewis said. “They were awesome. I got a hold of a tech rep over there. She told me what to do and bam I did it and [soon thereafter] we got the letter that we were going to be funded.”
The funding allows Lewis and his team to not only provide food to previously identified students on campus, but to any child in the community under 18 (those utilizing the program should bring their school ID if possible).
Meals for all students under 18 are available Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at San Benito High School in Baler Alley between West and Monterey Streets. Starting April 13, distribution will switch to Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“The easiest way is to come into Baler Alley from West Street and exit on Monterey,” Lewis said. “We are serving right outside the kitchen door.”
Using district transportation, Lewis said the school is also delivering meals every day to roughly 35 special education students. He and his team show up early in the morning, and the group focuses on creating age-appropriate meals that are nutritious and appealing.
During the first week of the school closure, students had access to items such as turkey and Italian combo sandwiches, fresh fruit, carrots and ranch dressing, chips, juice, and milk.
When making the menu, staff was also aware that not all students may have the same resources at home.
“We wanted to keep the items ready to eat right out of the bag because I do not know what kind of facility they have when they leave,” Lewis said. “Do they have a microwave or stove at home? The thought had been, we can give them precooked food that they can take home and heat, but that might not be the case.”
In its first week, 2,489 students have used the free food service, a large jump from just over 100 students using the service the first day. It also represents a large portion of the student body, estimated at 3,000 young adults.
Over its three weeks since starting, the number of students accessing the meals has continued to grow.
To date, 12,379 meals have been assembled and distributed, with an average of 1,100 meals being distributed per day.
According to Lewis, this three-week total does not include food that students received Friday, April 3 to sustain them through Spring Break.
“Today we are passing out 1,100 meals,” Lewis said. “Each meal (bag) contains six days’ worth of breakfast/lunch to last through next week as we will not be here due to Spring Break and the school being closed.”
How do Lewis and his staff feel about this?
“With me and my crew, it is making sure that all kids have something to eat,” he said. “The ladies come in smiling and they know they have a real purpose here. They have a real reason to get up in the morning and do something worthwhile and rewarding.”
One such worker is Maria Ketchum, an employee at the high school since 1998 who’s spent the last 20 years working specifically in food services.
“I enjoy my job,” Ketchum said. “I love working at the high school and providing meals every day for the students.”
When talking about preparing meals for families to pick up, Ketchum said, “It is important to maintain a positive attitude in these trying times. Feeding our students gives them one less thing to worry about.”
As Lewis said, “Kids can wait another day to open a book and learn something, but they can’t wait another day to put something in their stomachs. If we don’t feed them, they aren’t going to have the energy or the drive or the concentration to do the learning end of it.”
This thought propels Lewis and his team forward despite the uncertain times.
“I want to try to do the best I can to help provide the meals for them during this time,” Ketchum said. “It makes me feel good to see them come and get their meals, to ask how they are doing.”
“It’s a thrill to see so many people responding,” Lewis said.
“These kids are our family,” he said. “You take care of your family, bottom line, no matter what.”
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