Out for lunch: Organizations partner to ensure kids don’t go hungry during school closures

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Schools are closed through the end of the school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but several local organizations are partnering to make sure students who rely on school meals don’t go hungry.

Carmel Clay Schools, with the help of the Merciful HELP Center and Carmel Youth Assistance Program, is providing five-days’ worth of food for breakfast and lunch every week for students who need it. The food is distributed by school employees and volunteers in facemasks each Wednesday through a drive-up line at Carmel High School.

Carmel Police Dept. Sgt. D.J. Schoeff, a school resource officer, places a bag full of food in the back of a vehicle. The bag contains enough food for a student to have five breakfasts and lunches during the school closure. (Photo by Ann Marie Shambaugh)

CHS alerted families eligible to receive free and reduced lunch about the program, but the district won’t turn away anyone who needs help.

“There really isn’t a criteria, except that there’s a need,” said Jennifer McFarland, CCS director of food and nutrition services.

A limited number of CCS kitchen employees work Mondays and Tuesdays to prepare the meals, which are distributed Wednesdays by Merciful HELP volunteers and CCS employees, including Supt. Michael Beresford.

CCS and its partners scrambled to create the program in days when it became clear schools would be shut down. McFarland said she turned to Avon schools for guidance because it was the first district to close because of the pandemic after a student there tested positive for COVID-19 in early March.

“They were a huge resource for us on getting started,” McFarland said. “There were also a lot of late-night emails and phone calls to food service directors all over the state.”

During the first week of school closures, McFarland said CCS provided meals for 578 students. The total jumped to 651 the following week. Merciful HELP Center provided meals for eight days during spring break. Executive Director Jayne Slaton said the center typically feeds 150 to 200 students during spring break, but this year the number spiked to 686 students.

McFarland said CCS will be ready if the numbers continue to climb as the pandemic drags on and more families face unemployment and other hardships.

The Merciful HELP Center also provides breakfasts and lunches on weekends through its Back Sacks program, normally distributed on Fridays at school. Slaton said her organization is working to provide other types of help as well.

“It’s our goal that (families) feel very secure,” Slaton said. “I’m working hard to make sure there’s information in the sack that tells them how to get financial aid if they’re struggling.”

Several local religious congregations are partnering with CYAP to include a $25 Meijer gift card in the April 15 food distribution bags.

“We’re thinking this would help with personal products and all of the things that are not covered by food stamps,” Slaton said, adding that the community can donate toward the cost of the gift cards by contacting the Merciful HELP Center.

The Carmel Youth Assistance Program played more of an advisory role in setting up the school lunch program, but it’s already preparing for its annual summer meal program, which is expected to be in higher demand than ever because of the pandemic.

At the same time, CYAP is anticipating a funding shortfall because its annual fundraising gala – initially set for April 25 – is another casualty of the pandemic. Spring semester school food drives also have been canceled.

“Those are our two main sources (of donations),” said Maggie Figge, CYAP executive director. “Coupled with the fact we think we’re going to double our numbers and our two main sources of funding and support are not happening, we could really use some help.”

CYAP is partnering with Young Life/Wyld Life to provide a Project Gift of Art bag for each family receiving weekly meals at CHS. The bag will include crayons, colored pencils, construction paper, scissors and other items along with some activity ideas.

“We don’t want any child to miss out on all the fun ways to creatively express themselves during this time or not be included in many of the fun online activities that educators are posting about,” Figge said.

CYAP also has extended its services to provide more financial assistance than usual to help cover bills, rent and internet so students can participate in eLearning.

Merciful HELP Center will help ensure families who can’t make it to the weekly pick-up still receive food. The nonprofit, which is affiliated with Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, is still working to feed hungry residents beyond CCS, too.

“It’s OK to need help,” Slaton said. “We’re here for you. We’re not going to close. We’re going to keep our doors open, and we will give you everything we have.”

Carmel Clay Schools Supt. Michael Beresford places a bag full of food in the back of a vehicle. The bag contains enough food for a student to have five breakfasts and lunches during the school closure. (Photo by Ann Marie Shambaugh)

HOW TO HELP

CCS continues to use funds already budgeted to purchase food for the weekday breakfast and lunch distribution, but food donations are welcome at the Merciful HELP Center. The nonprofit also is accepting donations of toiletries, cleaning supplies and paper products.

Donations may be taken to the door on the south side of the building at 1045 W. 146th St. between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily.

Volunteers also are needed to sort donations, deliver food and make phone calls to check in on people and cheer them up. Sign up as a volunteer or learn more about donations at mercifulhelpcenter.org or by calling 317-663-4039, ext. 6.

The Carmel Youth Assistance Program is requesting monetary donations to help it prepare for the summer meals program. Donations may be made at youthassistance.org/carmel-donation or by sending a check to 515 E. Main St., Suite 127, Carmel, IN 46032. CYAP may begin requesting food donations at a later date.

Jake Bratton, a Purdue University sophomore and volunteer with Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, helps distribute food at Carmel High School. (Photo by Ann Marie Shambaugh)

HOW TO SIGN UP

Parents can sign up for food distribution on Mondays at https://forms.gle/McM1ro1wcwjDuToe8. The food will be distributed from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays through May 20 near Door 9 at Carmel High School, 520 E. Main St. Families must stay in their vehicles as food is loaded by volunteers or Carmel Clay Schools staff.

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