Free meals mean one less worry for CNE district families

By Dick Maloney

Anyone who has attended Clermont Northeastern School District’s Senior Holiday Luncheon or one of the other community events, knows that CNE’s students and staff eat well.

The food service staff is now sharing their talents and dedication with the community at large, to make sure students, their families and others have the food they need during the coronavirus pandemic. Terri Hoerth is the CNE Food Services Director and has been coordinating the massive task of planning, preparing and distributing free meals – five days a week of breakfasts and lunches.

CNE Food Services, which operates as a separate entity from the district and contracts with other entities, such as the U.S. Grant Career Center, has been following shifting guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture, which governs school meals.

“It’s nice that parents don’t have to worry if their children are going to eat, or how they are going to pay for them to eat. It’s nice to not have that worry,” Hoerth said. “I actually have a daughter that goes to school too, and she’s spending so much less money, but it’s good for all of us. It’s a win-win all the way across the board.”

Here’s what you need to know about the program:

How it began

When schools closed in March, CNE administrators met to discuss what to do about the high number of children in the district who need regular meals.

“At that point we made a decision that somehow, some way we were going to feed the children, and by doing that we started out with the bus routes, so we, together with my staff, put together a plan to determine what was the best way to deliver meals to the kids,” Hoerth said.

The original plan was to distribute meals at each bus stop in the district, but the logistics of that proved too great an obstacle. Instead, they looked at a district map and chose locations near high concentrations of students. Buses delivered five days worth of meals, breakfast and lunch, to more than 300 students.

In July, the distribution model switched, because district bus drivers were not scheduled to work that month. Families picked up meals in a drive-thru setup at the district’s middle school campus at U.S. 50 and Newtonsville-Hutchinson Road. Administrators also took meals to about 60 students who may not have been able to get to campus.

Program extended

Hoerth said the program was originally scheduled to run through Aug. 7, but the USDA extended the program through Dec. 31; it now is running through the end of the school year.

“There are many parents who are no longer working, didn’t work, can no longer work or families whose needs are just much higher now,” Hoerth said. “We are already in a high-need area. Once the USDA offered to extend the meals, it was just a no-brainer for us to have all children to have free breakfast and free lunch, and we also … have a Friday pickup at the high school for the virtual learners who wanted to opt into that.”

What’s included

Meal contents are somewhere between the cafeteria-tray style that students experience in school and a shopping trip at the local grocery. Common items include a hot dog and hot dog bun or chicken nuggets, for example. Sometimes CNE’s food service team will freeze components together, since most families have access to microwaves and ovens.

They will include instructions for the meals – which ones need refrigeration, which ones need freezing and which ones are shelf-stable. Meals may also include vegetables, juices, fresh fruits, apples, oranges, juice cups and traditional breakfast items such as toaster pastries, pancakes (on a stick and otherwise), bagels and cream cheese, as well as milk and juice.

“One of our biggest challenges really for us is being able to get the prepackaged stuff, because not only now is Clermont Northeastern doing it, every other district is doing it as well,” Hoerth said.

How much work is involved

Hoerth described it as a two-day process during the summer – one day spent preparing and packing and one day distributing.

“During the summer we rotated between staff. Now, whenever we get a free minute, that’s what we work on. And we anticipate it growing and we anticipate our meals growing even more, mostly because they extended, and it’s been growing every day, but it is different. It’s different than what we’re accustomed to,” she said.

Dealing with red tape

The USDA has stringent guidelines regarding school meals, but has revised and relaxed some of those during the pandemic. For example, meals have had to include at least one legume, one red vegetable and green vegetable each week (green beans don’t count).

‘Milk, milk was a struggle. There were a few times where we didn’t give out the exact amount of milk,” Hoerth said. “Their waivers have addressed some of that issue because some things are just harder to get. Most of our meals cover above and beyond.”

Who’s eligible

Any family with a child 18 or under can receive a meal, regardless of whether the children attend CNE schools, but the district’s service goes beyond that.  Essentially, anyone who shows up at a distribution event receives a meal, including those who don’t live in the district or may not have children at home.

“We have great staff, and at the end of the day my staff and I just have a natural passion for the children, and we are passionate about making sure that children don’t go without, and really anybody, if someone is in need, we’re not gong to say no,” Hoerth said.

How to get a meal

Meals for virtual learners are handed out Fridays between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. at the high school, via a drive-thru setup.