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School districts in Orange County work to feed students during remote schooling


Volunteers load food into the back of a school bus as part of the Food for Students program. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools created the program in March to help students gain easy access to meals and bridge hardship gaps caused by remote schooling. Photo Courtesy of Christine Cotton. 

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools created a program in March to help students gain access to meals and bridge hardship gaps caused by remote schooling. 

The program, called Food for Students, has continued into the fall as schools remain closed during the pandemic. It aims to efficiently provide nutritious meals to underprivileged children within the school district. 

As of July, the program had distributed more than 400,000 meals to students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. 

Christine Cotton, co-founder of PORCH Communities in Chapel Hill, said meals from Food for Students are covered with financial support from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, the Public School Foundation and a child nutrition food waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

She said while meals are covered, snacks are not covered under the USDA financial waiver, so Food for Students also relies on community fundraising.

"We fundraise to make it more fun," she said.

Cotton said Food for Students uses the fundraising money to add extra snacks like applesauce, granola bars and a blueberry muffin kit to make at home. 

She said CHCCS passes out meals at 37 distribution sites with the help of the district's bus system and Child Nutrition Services.

Cotton said meals are prepared at Smith and McDougle middle schools and then are bused to the distribution locations for families and students to pick up their food. In accordance with safety regulations, everyone in attendance must wear a mask and be socially distant in lines. 

The Food for Students program requires the child to be with the adult at the time of pickup. 

The program also caters to students who are not native English speakers. Those who don't speak English can request an in-person interpreter for four different languages: Spanish, Chinese, Burmese and Karen. 

Jeff Nash, a spokesperson for CHCCS, said in an email that the district sends out email blasts in nine different languages to effectively communicate with families and students. 

"Our school district is committed to equity and inclusion, and it is important that all families have the information needed to fully participate in the education process," Nash said.

Although Food for Students is specific to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, Orange County has created a similar process for students to receive meals normally provided during a normal school day. 

As of Aug. 31, Orange County Schools distributes meals from 17 locations. Normally, the district requires students to apply for free or reduced-price meals. However, with the USDA waiver, all students qualify.

When picking up meals from one of the county locations, a family member provides the child’s name, age, school, grade and number of meals needed. The child does not have to be in the car with the adult to pick up a county-provided meal. Additionally, no identification is required.

Though there are two separate food-insecurity programs in Orange County, the goal is the same for each: providing easy access to meals for K-12 students. 

Liz Cartano, the director of Child Nutrition for CHCCS, said Food for Students would not have been the success it is without the help of social workers, cafeteria staff, bus drivers and volunteers who helped ensure students and families felt cared for. 

"They were here because they wanted to be here, not because they had to be there," Cartano said.

She said every person working for Food for Students was excited to help and work because they knew there were 3,300 kids who needed to be taken care of. 

“It’s just doing the right thing,” Cartano said.

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