WEST WARWICK — West Warwick High School sat vacant Monday, as school vacation week got underway a month early amid concerns of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19. But while the rest of the building was silent, in the kitchen, a few Sodexo employees spent hours preparing bagged meals to ensure that, despite the time off, students who count on their schools to feed them will remain well nourished.
In an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Gina Raimondo last Friday announced that students statewide would take their April vacation this week while teachers develop remote instruction plans in case the closures are continued. For families whose children rely on school for their meals, however, the possibility that schools could remain shuttered presents a troubling scenario.
“We’ve got to make sure these kids eat,” Donna Walker, general manager of Sodexo in West Warwick, said Monday, standing in the high school’s kitchen among crates of milk cartons and colanders of shiny, red apples.
At a stainless-steel table, food service workers were using gloved hands to stuff paper bags; boxes of food were stacked neatly in the nearby walk-in cooler, ready to be distributed.
Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sodexo began earlier this week handing out meals daily to West Warwick students, and will begin today to hand out meals to students in Coventry.
“We understand that there are many families in the community that live week-to-week on their paychecks. Now many of them won’t be getting paychecks, or at least not full paychecks,” Richard Leso, general manager of Sodexo in Coventry, said Monday. “Their children have to eat, and it’s important that we feed the children of the community.”
Sodexo will provide lunches and breakfasts to-go at no cost to all children, from toddlers to 18-year-olds, throughout this time of uncertainty.
Meals in West Warwick will be handed out curbside Monday through Friday between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. from the high school, Greenbush Elementary School and Wakefield Hills Elementary School.
In Coventry, meanwhile, Sodexo today will begin distributing breakfast and lunch from Rice Memorial Field, 51 Knotty Oak Road. Meals will be handed out daily until school returns to normal session.
“They’re not to get out of the car,” Walker said of those picking up food, adding that the child needs to be present in order to receive food. “Between the fire department and ourselves, we’re going to be handing it to them.”
Similar to its summer lunch program, which provides students with free meals during school vacation, Sodexo will pack each bag with a well-rounded assortment of items. Meals will include protein, bread, fruits, milk and juice, Walker said.
“We’re following all the guidelines that we do for summer lunch,” Walker said. “We’re making sure that they have quality, healthy food.”
And she anticipates there will be a good number of students who take advantage of the impromptu program.
Though it fluctuates, Walker said that at any given time as many as 59 percent of West Warwick students are fed through the free-and-reduced lunch program.
In West Warwick, Sodexo will begin by preparing 1,000 of each meal per day — in the summertime, Walker said she typically serves some 600 meals daily from the various program locations.
“We don’t want to have a lot left over, we just want to make sure we have enough and hopefully we won’t have to turn anyone away,” Walker said. “That’s my only fear.”
West Warwick Superintendent Karen Tarasevich last Friday shared similar thoughts on the importance of ensuring that students are well fed during this time.
“We want to make sure we cover all bases,” Tarasevich said. “Not just the academics, but food service and health provisions, if families need them.”