Districts across Long Island this week rolled out grab-and-go services to allow families most threatened by school closures to pick up free meals with minimal contact.
After Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directed schools to close until April 1, district officials scrambled to meet the needs of tens of thousands of families that rely on the free and reduced-price meal program to feed their children.
“We are thinking of the workers where they are paid by the hour … working with clients in beauty salons and in the service industry like restaurants,” said Michael Hynes, superintendent of Port Washington Union Free School District. “They are not drawing a paycheck.”
Since Monday, more and more school districts have set up makeshift food distribution stations staffed by school personnel and volunteers at parking lots and school properties.
“Otherwise, where would they go to get this meal?” said Eudes Budhai, superintendent of the Westbury Union Free School District that handed out 2,000 meals on Tuesday. “The restaurants are closed. They may not have the means to go to the supermarket to get some of the products they need to cook.”
In Nassau and Suffolk counties, an estimated 90,000 students receive free and reduced-cost meals, according to Randi Shubin Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest Food Bank.
In the past few days, the William Floyd School District has distributed about 3,000 prepackaged, multimeal bags at its three locations.
When school is in session, the district on the South Shore offers all students free meals thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that allows school districts in low-income areas to offer free breakfast and lunch. On average, 65% of the district’s 9,000 students qualify for the free and reduced-cost meal program.
“Being that we are a school district that does have a high free and reduced lunch level, we understand the needs of our population,” Superintendent Kevin Coster said. “It’s our job to make sure we are assisting in any way possible, which definitely includes the distribution of food.”
On Wednesday morning, high school teacher Donia Rivera was one of two dozen volunteers who handed out milk, bagels, cream cheese, fruits and turkey sandwiches — all packaged in bags — at William Floyd High in Mastic Beach.
“We are just putting things in people’s cars, and we are far enough away from people. Just closing and opening doors carefully,” the mother of three said. “This is a time of need. Any little thing we can do to help.”
Superintendents said volunteers and staff members like Rivera took the precautions recommended by health experts, though officials acknowledged the potential risk of contact with asymptomatic patients who come to pick up food for their families.
“Anybody could be carrying it. We don’t know about it,” Hynes, in Port Washington, said. “I think that’s why … it just shows you how people are willing to go the extra mile to help our families.”
In Hynes’ district on the North Shore, one in five of its 5,700 students use free and reduced-cost meal program. The superintendent said in an environment where going to the grocery store was not 100% safe, he had to weigh the risk against the need.
“The reality is we are trying to feed people who truly, truly need it,” Hynes said. “I can guarantee the fact that these families need food though. That to me supersedes everything.”
Grab-and-go meals, school officials said, fill more than empty stomachs.
On Tuesday, the first day when service began, Budhai ran into a fifth-grader at Park Avenue Elementary in Westbury before the girl left with her parents with bagged food.
“She saw me. I saw her. She smiled. I smiled. We waved at each other. We were about 15 feet away,” Budhai said. “She yelled at me saying: ‘Mr. Budhai, I will see you in school.’ And I said: ‘Absolutely, see you soon.’ ”
It made his day.