While most schools in the U.S. have closed their doors for the remainder of the academic year and transitioned to online learning, some also have looked for a way to serve the physical needs of their students and the local community.
Marian High School, Mishawaka, which distributes food to several Catholic grade schools during the school year and serves meals throughout the summer, has developed procedures to ensure the nutritional needs of local students are cared for during this difficult time.
Led by Cami Whitten, food service director at Marian, a team of 12 employees gathers each morning to assemble more than 4,200 breakfasts and lunches to be distributed throughout the day. Once packaged, families can receive the meals through social-distancing-approved methods.
Whitten shared, “when the initial discussions about the possibility of school closings began, we were able to come up with a model for what we thought we could do. On March 13, they announced the closures. We had measures in place and started by the 16th. Since then we’ve served over 115,000 meals.”
Regarding the pickup methods, she explained, “When people arrive to receive their meals, staff members bring them directly to the cars. We don’t open their doors or trunk since we don’t want any cross contamination. We also wear gloves and masks for everyone’s protection. However, we don’t require the children to be in the car when the parents drive through. The whole idea is social distancing; keep your kids safe.”
Marian’s participation in the Summer Food Service Program provided the legal standing to continue operations during the quarantine. It has also been able to maintain a practice of supplying thousands of meals to local Catholic schools.
St. Adalbert, St. Matthew Cathedral and Our Lady of Hungary schools in South Bend and St. Vincent de Paul School in Elkhart have faculty and staff on site who distribute the meals to parents who drive up. Volunteers from Holy Cross, St. John the Baptist, and Corpus Christi schools in South Bend have been delivering Marian’s meals directly to their students’ homes.
Whitten expressed her gratitude for the generosity of the many individuals who have made this endeavor possible. She revealed, “We have teachers that come in every afternoon and help prepare for the next day. We begin at 7 a.m. building the bags and transporting them. We serve the meals outside from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., whether rain, shine, snow, sleet or hail. All of the staff is working full time to keep this going. We couldn’t do this without their help.”
The breakfast and lunch meals are served each weekday, with twice as much food given on Fridays to provide over the weekend. Marian’s football coaches have come in on Sunday afternoons to prepare the bags for Monday morning.
The menu has varied based on what food was in store or provided by local establishments, often at discounted prices. However, the schools also needed adequate supplies to ensure meals were assembled and transported safely. Whitten stated, “We began with paper bags, and when those became unavailable, we bought plastic bags, until those ran out, too. Then we started asking people from the school if they had plastic bags we could use, but first they had to be cleaned. We kept the bags quarantined for five days and would then pull them out and use as needed. Additionally, Kroger, Martin’s Supermarkets and Menards all gave us bags to help out. When no bags could be found at Shelton’s Farm Market, they contacted their grocery suppliers to get us some. We could always use more.”
“Whole Foods was giving us boxes to use so we could make larger family packages. We were running out of the commodities we receive through the Indiana Department of Education; but they gave us more and didn’t charge us since we are feeding all these kids.”
Regarding the responses they have received, Whitten shared, “We’ve gotten thank-you cards, posters and more. The kids are all so happy! A mom was crying because she didn’t know what she was going to do – this is how she’s feeding her kids.”
Carol Draeger Thomas, principal of Our Lady of Hungary School, remarked, “The drive-thru lunches have been an oasis of normalcy and nutrition for our families and the surrounding neighborhood. It’s been a godsend.”
The effort has also united both Catholic high schools on the west side of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, as faculty, staff, and administrators from Saint Joseph High School in South Bend have been able to personally assist in the efforts taking place at Marian and deliver food to the grade schools. Whitten remarked, “In this effort we don’t have rivals, it’s not Marian vs. Saint Joe, it’s Catholic schools working together. We’re all in it for the kids.”
Carl Loesch, diocesan secretary of Catholic education, expressed his gratitude for the project’s efforts, the leadership of Marian principal Mark Kirzeder and the dedicated commitment of all involved. Additionally, he exclaimed, “Cami Whitten should be given tons of credit for her creativity, compassionate heart and incredible work ethic.”
What will happen to the program as quarantine measures begin to lift?
Whitten responded, “Right now we are set to go to June 30. I’ve contacted our grades schools and they are going to make the decision of whether they want to continue. We’re more than willing to do it for them, but I see this continuing on until school starts again, if they start again in the fall. Should it end, we will transition to the normal summer program, but if not, we’ll continue on. We’re in for the long haul. It’s an effort between all of us.”
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