West Hartford Public Schools ‘Grab and Go’: 30,000 Meals and Counting

Nutrition Services staff put grab and go meals together at Charter Oak International Academy in West Hartford. Courtesy photo

West Hartford Public Schools instituted a ‘Grab and Go’ meal program during the first week that schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and since then has provided more than 30,000 meals to students.

Nutrition Services staff put grab and go meals for distribution in West Hartford. Courtesy photo

By Ronni Newton

The closing of West Hartford Public Schools buildings in mid-March created a challenge for how to continue to educate students, but it also led to the question of how many students would be able have enough to eat.

About 27% of West Hartford Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced lunch based on their income, and eat both breakfast and lunch at school when the buildings are open. Ensuring that those students would still be provided with meals – particularly at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional financial stress on families – was a critical consideration when Superintendent Tom Moore announced March 12 that schools would be closed for at least two weeks beginning March 16.

Last week the closing of schools was extended at least through May 20 by an executive order of Gov. Ned Lamont.

Since the “Grab and Go” program began, more than 30,000 meals have been provided to West Hartford Public Schools families, said Tim Prosinski, Food Services director.

The distribution of bagged meals began the first week that schools were closed, and has been taking place three times a week ever since, typically on Monday/Wednesday/Friday. Last week’s schedule was modified because of Good Friday, and this week, which is April break, there is distribution only on Tuesday and Thursday, said Prosinski.

But the same number of meals are being handed out overall – just more meals at a time. The students get enough bagged meals to cover breakfast and lunch every day, including on the weekends.

“We’ve been handing out about 1,100 meals a day, breakfast and lunch,” Prosinski said. At first there were seven locations, but the Bugbee distribution was halted due to construction at the school so six remain: Braeburn Elementary School, Charter Oak International Academy, Conard High School, King Philip Middle School, Whiting Lane Elementary School, and at the Hillcrest Avenue Neighborhood Outreach Center (HANOC) for students who live in that neighborhood.

Nutrition Services staff put grab and go meals together at Charter Oak International Academy in West Hartford. Courtesy photo

Good Friday was a holiday, so the final distribution last week took place on Thursday, and there were enough bags handed out to hold families over until Tuesday. That meant about 4,500 meals, said Prosinski.

“We’re four weeks into this, and the staff has been working really hard,” he said.

Other than at HANOC, the meals are assembled at each location. A van brings the meals from Conard to HANOC.

The contents of the grab and go bags are pre-packaged, and including items such as a selection of sandwiches, vegetable juice or bags of vegetables, whole wheat breakfast foods, cereal, shelf stable milk, and bagged fresh fruit slices like apples and pears. Everything is kept in freezers or coolers at the schools, and handed out by a team of 14 staff members from Nutrition Services – two at each location and two rotating managers.

Prosinski said using pre-packaged foods is for the sake of safety. “I didn’t want to lay out 1,000 sandwiches, and then find that one of the staff spikes a fever,” he said. “When they’re made in sterile facilities it’s safer.”

The Grab and Go program is being provided through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Roszena Haskins, director of Diversity Advancement for West Hartford Public Schools, and those picking up meals do not need to provide documentation that they qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“It’s free for everyone,” Haskins said in a previous interview with We-Ha.com. “It’s something we’re doing and we don’t want to single anyone out. Anyone who wants or needs it gets it.”

As the program has progressed, the physical distancing practices have also evolved.

“The public has been wonderful about it. The community has been very appreciative,” Prosinski said. Family members coming to pick up food now get out of their vehicles and request the number of meals they need from Nutrition Services staff rather than having staff approach them at their cars.

Due to the shortage of personal protective equipment overall, masks have not been issued to Nutrition Services staff and wearing a mask is not deemed mandatory, but many wear their own – as do many of the people coming to pick up meals.

“We’d like them,” Prosinski said, and donations of masks would be welcomed. He expressed his thanks to the Farmington Valley Sewing Mask Group, which indicate Friday afternoon that they would be donating 20 masks to Nutrition Services.

West Hartford Public Schools has held a food distribution program – in conjunction with an enrichment program – at the Faxon Library during the summer for the past several years, but it’s much smaller scale than the grab and go program. Prosinski said that after the past several weeks, it’s clear to him that the program needs to be expanded.

“We’ve learned a lot about the needs of our community,” Prosinski said. “We need more open sites.” He said he has already been in contact with the state regarding expansion of the summer meals program and will be altering his application for this year to better address food insecurity among West Hartford Public Schools families.

More information about West Hartford Public Schools grab and go meals and other available community food programs can be found here.

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