By Courtney Deeren
Area schools are continuing to serve free meals to families in need despite being shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Holley Central School District Superintendent Brian Bartalo shared the district’s steps to distributing meals to its students.
“On average here at Holley, we are serving about 875 meals a day,” Bartalo said. “The meals — breakfast and lunch — each include a carton of milk and often there’s juice and/or fruit too.”
Bartalo also said this service isn’t only for students whose families have specific financial needs.
“All children under the age of 18 who reside in the district are eligible to receive a breakfast and a lunch each day [Monday through Friday].”
As far as finding helpers to put together and distribute the meals Bartalo said his staff was more than happy to help out.
“Daily we have teachers, aids, administrators, clerical staff and other staff members volunteering at our food distribution sites and with our food preparation,” Bartalo said. “It’s been incredible to see the community spirit that’s come from this.”
Bartalo was proud to see how many people were willing to pull together for this cause.
“Holley is a district that is incredible when it comes to volunteering and giving back to the community. We are very fortunate here to have so many wonderful people willing to lend a hand to this effort and do whatever is needed.”
The whole process has been set up to minimize contact while still getting the necessary items to families.
“Basically, the trained food service staff do all the meal preparations in our kitchen,” Bartalo said. “They are assisted by some of our volunteers, but the food service people put the meals together. They follow all the safety guidelines and meal nutrition requirements that they would if we were in school. However, even more precautions [such as] social distancing, extra sanitizing etcetera are being utilized through this.”
The food is then distributed through the five sites around the community.
“We have bus drivers who deliver the boxes and there is a food service person and a staff volunteer — we call them ‘friendly faces’ — to meet the families and distribute the food. It’s all very safe and we use all the required precautions, gloves, distancing etcetera.”
One of the distribution sites is located at the elementary school, where the district kitchen is and the food is prepared. At this location, parents pull up to get their meals. The district has also been using this distribution site to deliver paper copies of school work, laptops and wifi ‘hotspots.’
“It’s quite the operation,” Bartalo said. “Families have been so appreciative.”
A current administrator in the district, Matt Hennard, was involved in planning for this.
“Administrators had a lot of meetings early on when all this was first happening to decide how to best handle it,” Hennard said.
Hennard was also helping out with distribution before they cut back on the volume of volunteers.
“I was going to one of the distribution centers a few days a week,” Hennard said. “But then they cut back to only a very few essential people. Plus with Janelle [his wife] being a nurse and having the kids at home we want to minimize our outside contacts as much as possible.”
Bartalo is hopeful the shut down won’t last too long, but says they are prepared for whatever the future may have in store.
“We hope to return to school as soon as it’s safe and we’re allowed, but we are prepared to provide food to our students for as long as it takes, even if that means the rest of the school year, just like if the students were here.”
Bartalo acknowledged the difficulty of this experience for not only him, but also the community as a whole.
“This is as challenging a situation as I’ve ever faced in my 32 years in public education,” Bartalo said. “It’s been incredible. The daily changes, updates and challenges have been unprecedented. However, yes, the spirit of comradery , care and concern for not only our students, but for their families and for each other, has been truly inspiring. For as much as we’re really apart, physically, this event has probably, in many ways, brought us closer together as a district and as a community than ever before.”
And even though the situation is always evolving, Bartalo says the community will be okay.
“We will get through this, because we are together.”