No school, no problem: Small crew provides big meals for Haines students

Published: Apr. 7, 2020 at 8:21 PM AKDT
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Lisa Flory woke up to 18 inches of snow Wednesday morning, but even that wasn't about to stop her from helping get hot lunches to hundreds of local kids.

"It was just ridiculously snowing so hard, big, fat flakes," said Flory, who works for the Haines Borough School District. She drove from her home in the early hours of the day on unplowed roads and in low-visibility conditions. "I was like, 'What am I doing?' If we were in session, we would probably have had a snow day."

Still, along with two others, Flory went into the Haines School at around 7 a.m., like she has every weekday since March 23.

"We just kept going," said HBSD Superintendent Roy Getchell. "She didn't even call and say, 'Hey, there's snow!' We didn't even discuss. It was just normal. And that's inspiring."

For all, dealing with coronavirus is a new challenge. Families are losing income as thousands across Alaska lose their jobs, and schooling from nursery through post-secondary education has moved to online services, both of which can easily put youngsters' food sources at risk. Even before the pandemic struck, an estimated 20 percent of Alaskan kids were estimated by the Food Bank of Alaska to live in homes that may not have enough food for them, and that includes urban areas with more access to provisions.

"We've seen an uptick (in need of food) even though school isn't in session," Getchell said. "Lunch has had to look different. We are a team, and education is critically important. One thing that goes hand-in-hand with that is proper nutrition for our students and the children of the community."

Technically the Food Program Coordinator for the Haines Borough School District, Flory is no stranger to providing food for kids, nor is she unaware of the impacts hunger can have on children's abilities to learn, concentrate, and perform. While so many other things have changed, she and Getchell wanted to keep at least something the same: In this case, a hot meal would provide consistency for all students 18 and under both inside and outside of the Haines Borough School District.

"At 11:30, mom is going to run down to the school and get lunches," Flory said of parents trying to keep some stability in their households. "And dad is going to say, 'Wash your hands,' and we're going to get ready and have lunch. Those kinds of things are helping kids to stay focused."

In the middle of the school, which usually houses both elementary and high school students, Flory, head cook Dick Haas, and chef Cheryl Baxter prepared no less than 250 meals for kids both inside and outside of the district. An assembly line, where kids would normally get their school lunches, is used to prepare the food, which ranges from simple sandwiches to more complicated dishes such as chicken teriyaki with rice and an Asian vegetable blend.

"Whatever we can get our hands on is pretty much what we're using," Flory said of the planned meals. "I did write a menu, but because the supply chain has been a little wonky, I'm only publishing the menu for the week that we're in."

On Wednesday, the trio assembled lunches perhaps worthy of both stay-at-home and at-work envy: The menu included turkey wraps on whole wheat tortillas and chicken noodle soup from scratch, with everything fresh and prepared the same day. The standard side of fruit - in this case, an orange - and an 8 oz. carton of milk were included, too.

The team effort expands further with the deliveries of the meals. School librarian Leigh Horner and lunch aide Annie Wallers were on hand Wednesday to drop the meals off to families that had driven to the school for pick up. Another group took a portion of the lunches from the school to a community 30 miles away.

"Just being able to see a smiling face and hand out a hot meal to kids, even if it's just in the car through the window, it really brightens the day for everybody," Flory said. "Not just the kids, but for us, too. It makes a difference."

Along with the hard work of Flory, Haas and Baxter, and the devoted group that assists with getting the meals into the hands of hungry kids, the state granted a waiver so that more than a few people can congregate to get their lunches, helping make the deliveries possible. Funding comes in part from the federal level, which contributes money to the state, and the state, in turn, provides dollars to school districts. In this case, Flory and her team can provide the meals and then receive reimbursements later.

Already, they've distributed about 3,500 lunches to hungry kids in their community, and while the work can be difficult, Flory seems to maintain an attitude that continuing to provide school-made meals is the least the group can do for the students and their families.

"We're still feeding children to help ease the burden in our community," she said. "Southeast Alaska is going to be hit extremely hard economically, with the cruise ship delays and with oil prices being low. Many families are out of work. Summer isn't looking great. So we thought we'd get a jump on it, and start taking care of kids right away."

Getchell, reflecting on the hard work of the team, said that seeing staff wearing masks and delivering lunches for the benefit of students is heartening.

"Haines and all of Alaska does what it needs to," he said, "no matter the situation, to get the job done."

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