SCOTTVILLE — The food service department at Mason County Central Schools has been working on a daily basis to keep children fed during the shut-down of Michigan schools, and that there are no plans to stop, even as more and more people are staying at home to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Each day, a small crew of workers led by Mary Ann Nielsen, MCC food service director, prepares hundreds of breakfasts and lunches for kids up to age 18 — and people with special needs up to age 26 — from throughout the school district and beyond.
On Wednesday, as cars pulled up to the Upper Elementary — which is being used as a distribution site for Scottville families — food service workers had something special for the people who came by.
People at each of the sites received “Rainbow” bags, which contained a few fun items to help kids and families pass the time at home during the quarantine period.
“They’re bags that the administration has put together. It’s got card games, coloring books and reading books. So each family, as long as they last, gets one,” Nielsen told the Daily News, emphasizing that Angie Taylor, director of compensatory and migrant education at MCC, spearheaded the effort to place give them out with meals.
Taylor said it was an opportunity to spread some happiness in the midst of uncertainty.
“We really wanted to have the opportunity during these uncertain times to spread some joy, kindness and fun through distributing surprise rainbow bags at our food distribution sites,” Taylor stated in an email. “The rainbow bags included books, academic resources, community resources, snacks and a game.
“It is our hope to be able to continue with ‘pop up’ surprises during these uncertain times as we look at all ways to support our families and students during this time.”
The food service program — which got underway on Tuesday, March 17 — provides breakfasts and lunches to hundreds of students per day, according to Nielsen, with more than 400 going out on the first day.
“We’ve been doing about 350 lunches and 350 breakfasts each day, and that’s pretty much stayed the same,” Nielsen said. “We do have some families coming and asking for three days of meals, because we do meals for the weekends.”
It’s hard to determine exactly how many families are served, she said, because there are some who pick up food for children of parents who are still working and deemed essential personnel by the governor’s executive order.
Students from any school district can receive meals through MCC’s program.
“As far as school district, it doesn’t matter. If you go to Ludington, you can come to Scottville, and vice versa,” said Nielsen, adding that there are distribution sites throughout the area.
In addition to the Upper Elementary, where food is available from 11 to 11:45 a.m., there are also distribution sites at Victory Baptist Church, the Branch Fire Department and Legends Taxidermy from 11 to 11:45 a.m.; St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and Evergreen Church from noon to 1 p.m.; the Free Soil Community Center from noon to 12:45 p.m.; the Grant Fire Department, from 1 to 1:45 p.m.
So far, the program has run smoothly for the most part, though there were some issues early on with supplies.
“Last week was a scramble. We couldn’t get milk, because … when they shut the schools down, everyone said they had all this (unused) milk, but then on Monday, all these sites were starting and people were saying, ‘I need my milk back.’”
Nielsen said the state has been understanding of the difficulties school districts face, since certain nutritional requirements need to be met.
“The state has been awesome … We were able to substitute (milk) with juice and a string cheese,” she said. “We have to meet the requirement for protein, bread, a fruit and a vegetable. The vegetable (requirement) is hard. You can do baby carrots and celery, and that’s about it. The state has told us we can do two fruits and then omit the vegetable, but they have to be two different fruits.”
Some of the supply difficulties are starting to get sorted out now that the program has become a routine.
“It’s starting to come around a bit. I’m able to get more fresh fruit,” Nielsen said. “My main vendor is Gordon Foods, and they’ve been great.”
Nielsen said her small crew of five people tries to stay ahead of the curve, finishing up the next day’s meals before they leave on a given day.
MCC’s food service department also provides Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors in the area, and she said the number of homes they’re visiting has increased.
“Actually, I’m getting more and more calls,” Nielsen said. “I’ve probably added at least six people between Monday and Tuesday.”
She said her staff took precautions with homebound seniors “from the get-go,” pro-actively asking if they were comfortable still receiving meals from the food service workers.
“My staff is incredibly excited about doing it. We’ve had no push back at all, and my staff is like, ‘Lets do this. Let’s get people fed.’”
MCC Superintendent Jeff Mount said he “couldn’t be more proud” of the food distribution program, which is a collaborative effort between the food service and transportation departments.
He commended the school district’s employees for adapting, working together and responding quickly to changes as the COVID-19 situation continues to develop.
“These are unprecedented times and everything seems to be changing hourly, daily, and we don’t know how it will change things,” Mount said. “But we’re going to continue to provide (meals). It is an essential function of our community, and Gov. Whitmer came out and clarified that schools should be doing everything they can to offer meals.
“I just can’t say enough great things about the food service department and the transportation department … And I would be remiss without sharing the work of our central business office. Angie Taylor spearheaded the Rainbow bags, and they’re really popular. Chris Courtland-Willick, (Taylor) and Karen Cameron have made sure all the functions of this office continue and that we make sure our employees are being paid during this time. It really is a team effort.”
Nielsen said breakfasts, lunches and weekend meals will continue to be provided during the week of spring break, and through the extended K-12 school closure, which is now expected to last until April 13.