Districts encourage families to take advantage of free meals

Published 7:00 am Thursday, April 30, 2020

Free grab and go meals for children 18 and younger are still available from all three county school districts and families are encouraged to take advantage of the meal programs.

Regardless of a family’s financial situation, they are encouraged to take part in the community feeding program, said Sheila Amacker, Pearl River County School District Food Service Director. The program can help parents use money they would have spent on food to pay for other things like utilities, auto insurance or healthcare, she said.

At Picayune Junior High, on Tuesday bacon cheeseburgers were on the menu, along with an armful of food that included grocery bags with fruit and donated chocolate bunnies from Walmart.

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Children walk up to the site or parents drive up to the back of the school and indicate how many kids they need meals for. Site manager Deneen Shoemake clicks a counter to track the number of meals distributed before she places a burger in a brown paper bag along with a cookie. Tracy Taucer carries the full plastic grocery bags to the cars while Theresa Volden delivers the paper bag and chocolate bunny.

Two more women are inside the kitchen, making sure enough food comes out to the masked workers serving meals outside.

“It’s really a blessing. It’s fun meeting people, hearing their gratitude,” said Shoemake. “I think we love doing this more than they love coming to get it.”

Within 25 minutes, the small team distributed 73 meals. The number of children receiving free meals from all three school districts has remained fairly consistent throughout the school closures.

Poplarville School District serves an average of 250 children meals a day at its grab and go sites three times a week, although that number has been up to 325 kids, said Child Nutrition Director Laine Jackson. On Mondays and Wednesdays children receive four meals at a time, so the district is serving approximately 1,000 meals every Monday and Wednesday. On Fridays, children receive two meals. Every meal includes milk and the district began adding hot meals this week.

Employees try to include items kids enjoy like ice cream and fresh fruit, and make an effort to balance treats with nutritious food, said Jackson.

The Picayune School District serves meals to an average of 1,400 students per day at its grab and go sites, said Assistant Superintendent Walt Esslinger. Children receive two free meals when they pick up food, and adults can also purchase meals.

“We would not want any child to miss out on this opportunity,” said Superintendent Dean Shaw.

Pearl River Central School District distributes meals to an average of 1,000 children daily at all three grab and go sites, Amacker said. The number of participating children decreased from an average of 1,100 to 1,200 kids to just over 900 kids per distribution day after it was announced that schools were closed for the rest of the semester, Amacker said.

“We’re impressed with the numbers,” said Amacker. “For being a rural school district to have those numbers, we’re happy to see that we’re able to provide that much service to the community.”

If school was in session, the cafeterias in PRC’s District would serve 2,200 lunches during an average school day, said Amacker.

With the grab and go meals, the district is pushing out an average of 4,000 meals biweekly, to provide children with breakfast and lunch for four days a week. Children receive four meals each distribution day.

On Mondays, cafeteria staff along with teaching or support staff who have volunteered to help with the community feeding program prep 1,000 lunch bags placing shelf stable food like cereal into the meal bags. Throughout the week staff members volunteer their time to help. That can include the transportation staff distributing meals to the two church sites to teachers and administrative staff prepping food and loading ice chests, said Amacker.

“Our principals are making sandwiches, literally. The superintendent is there every week passing out meals,” said Amacker.

The Pearl River Central District has had some trouble acquiring some shelf stable items like juices from its vendors, said Amacker. Next week, district staff will have to bag chips, because they were not able to order individually bagged chips.

“It requires more time and more effort, but whatever it takes. The kids, they love their chips,” said Amacker.

Grab and Go Locations

The Picayune School District grab and go meals are distributed Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at four sites: Roseland Park Elementary, Picayune Junior High, South Side Elementary and Nicholson Elementary.

The Pearl River Central School District is distributing meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays at three locations: the Pearl River Central Middle School from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; the West Union Baptist Church, 560 West Union Road, Carriere, from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.; and Lee’s Chapel No. 1 Baptist Church, 11 Herb Lee Fred Spiers Road, Carriere, from 12 p.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The Poplarville School District is distributing meals at the Middle School of Poplarville on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

At all three districts, meals are free for children 18 and younger, including toddlers. Children do not have to be enrolled in the school district to receive a meal, although they do have to be present when meals are picked up. Whatever the child’s situation, whether they are visiting from out of state or homeschooled, they are welcome to take advantage of the free meal program.