AUGUSTA  — Families who learned over the weekend their children would be out of school for the next two weeks braved the cold and wind Monday to gather in a playground parking lot and pick up bags of apples, bagels, sandwiches and milk.

The food is what students would normally receive at school, but the coronavirus has forced most districts in Maine to shut down for at least two weeks, effectively cutting off students’ access to school meals.

Alexis Denson was among parents in Augusta and elsewhere around the state who flocked to parking lots, playgrounds and bus loops, all food distribution sites that schools have set up as part of their coronavirus response.

“It’s really stressful,” said Denson, a certified nursing assistant who held the hand of her 4-year-old daughter, Amelia Fish, who attends a Head Start preschool program. “I work full-time and I’m a single mom, so I don’t have anyone to watch her now.”

Denson said the meal distribution plan is important as she contemplates how to care for her daughter after learning Sunday night that her program would close for two weeks. “Food is expensive and there’s not much of it in the stores right now,” she said.

About 44 percent of Maine’s 180,000 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. In some schools 100 percent of students get free meals through a federal program that reimburses districts for meals in areas with significant low-income populations.

Several Maine school districts announced closures over the weekend aimed at slowing the spread of the virus and protecting vulnerable members of their communities from becoming infected. Many students, particularly in disadvantaged areas, rely on the meals they get at school and access to food and childcare have been cited as concerns that could arise from the long-term closure of schools.

With decisions to close made hastily by many districts over the weekend following a growing number of viral cases in Maine, the schools worked quickly to address one of the most pressing needs for their students: how to get them the nutritious meals they normally get at school. Districts are also scrambling to put together distance learning programs for students.

For many, the food programs being developed model the food service students can get in the summer. The federal government last week, anticipating the likelihood that states would need to provide students with meals to be consumed off-site, granted Maine and other states waivers to do so.

In the Cape Elizabeth School Department, Superintendent Donna Wolfrom said the food services staff would begin delivering meals Tuesday to a small number of families who had requested them.

While plans are still being made for distance learning, Wolfrom said, the district wanted to make sure it could get food out right away.

“We’ll be spending the next few days making plans,” she said. “There will be an emphasis on having teachers and ed techs be able to contact students. We want to make sure everybody can contact their students.”

In South Portland, curbside breakfast and brown bag lunches will be provided at several locations for children as old as 18 beginning Tuesday.

Meals can be picked up Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Kaler Elementary School, Skillin Elementary School, Brickhill Heights and Redbank Community Center. The meals will be handed out from school buses in the parking lots of those locations.

In Biddeford schools, the district set up a drive-thru site Monday where families could pick up breakfast and lunch at Biddeford Middle School without getting out of their cars.

“We felt it was important to make sure that during these times of uncertainty families’ basic needs are being met,” said Martha Jacques, director of the district’s Alternative Pathways Center.

In Portland Public Schools, which are currently closed for two weeks, Superintendent Xavier Botana told families Saturday that the district would be ready Wednesday to provide alternative food service and remote learning plans for students.

In the meantime, Full Plates Full Potential, a Portland-based nonprofit that aims to connect children around Maine with access to healthy food, stepped in to connect the district with local restaurants who will prepare and serve meals to students Tuesday.

“We’ve been watching what’s happening around the country,” said John Woods, co-founder of Full Plates Full Potential. “It’s something we’re concerned about every day. Children who live in food insecure homes are challenged enough. With school closures we know things can get more difficult for those families.”

He said the Portland school district reached out to him about ways to fill a gap in food service before Wednesday at the same time he was hearing from restaurants that business was slow.

Jane McLucas, food service director in Portland Public Schools, said the district is “very lucky” to have the extra help before they can launch their own meal program Wednesday. She expects to feed 2,000 to 3,000 students per day over the next two weeks.

There are about 6,800 students total in Portland schools, but McLucas said the meal program is also open to anyone under 18, including those who live outside the district.

“We have over 50 percent free and reduced lunch students,” she said. “Having that option available to them as this pandemic progresses I think will become more and more needed in the district.”

Woods said he’s hoping the partnership between schools and restaurants is something other areas of the state will also look at as they consider how to feed out-of-school students.

“The bad news is we have children who are food insecure in our state,” Woods said. “The good news is awareness is at an all time high. People understand that when school is out kids will go hungry. Maine (has) very creative people and our school systems want these children to be fed. It’s part of the discussion when they’re making the decision to close: How do we feed these children that need these meals?”

At Williams Playground, one of the meal pick-up sites in Augusta, Matthew Greenlaw and his girlfriend Nicole Howard stopped to get meals for their three children ages 5, 7 and 16.

The couple said they wouldn’t be surprised to find out over the next two weeks that the rest of the school calendar is cancelled for the year.

“One girl I talked to, she’s expecting daycare closures soon,” Greenlaw said. “She’s like, ‘I’m screwed. I can’t go to work.’ There’s that whole factor – people being out of work either because of childcare things or because they’re sick. Bills still have to get paid. It’s a tangled situation.”

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