USD 418 serves up meals by the thousands

By Jessie Wagoner

McPHERSON—Almost 2,000 free meals a day are distributed to children in McPherson, thanks to the efforts of USD 418 Nutrition Services. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided free of charge to any child between the ages of one and 18 in McPherson. The program kicked off on March 23 and has been well received by the community.

“We are serving just under 2,000 meals a day, so about 1,000 kids a day,” Food Service Director Bill Froese said. “The weather can make a difference. On rainy days, we see less. But at our peak, it is just under 2,000 meals a day.” 

When news broke about schools closing due to COVID-19 Froese was on vacation, as it was Spring Break. Fortunately, he had his computer with him and quickly got to work, communicating with his administrative secretary. They quickly gathered production records and vendor lists to get everything put together. 

“I just really hit vendors hard,” Froese said. “I had to hit between four to five different vendors to get what we needed. We had to get creative with what we put on the menu.” 

With so many school districts scrambling to create a plan and contact vendors, it was challenging to come up with a menu which would work while also ensuring they could order everything needed. They also needed to obtain an incredibly large supply of clear bags to place the food in.

“Thanks to God, a good administration, excellent workers of mine and generous patrons in the community, that is what made it happen,” Froese said. “We’ve got an excellent staff that jumped in with both feet. We literally get changes on a daily, sometimes an hourly, basis, yet they still continue to jump and put themselves out there.”

Currently, the meals are on a weekly cycle, and all that is served is cold items. While Froese says they have considered implementing a hot meal children could take home and reheat, they haven’t done so yet. They want the meals to be as user friendly for children as they can be, limiting the need for microwaving or using an oven.

The district has also partnered with local businesses and the McPherson County Community Foundation to provide weekend bags of food for children. The weekend food is provided during Friday meal pickups. On May 8, the district will be giving employees the day off, as they would have been for All Schools Day. So distribution on May 7 will include food for Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

In addition to serving meals at school locations, Froese says the district is delivering meals to rural students as needed. For children who are quarantined at home, delivery can be arranged as well. 

“I want to point out how thankful I am for the people who are willing to be on the front line of my staff,” Froese said. “It shows a lot about their nature and character. It really is wonderful to see the amount of people who have responded district wide to help. Employees who weren’t in the food service department have volunteered to help. I’m super thankful for the volunteers and all the people who have made it possible for this to happen.”

The hard work of district staff hasn’t gone unnoticed by parents. Many expressed how thankful they were for the food program. 

“All five of my kids love the lunches,” Aurora Melendez said. “And the next morning breakfasts really help when I work 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. and have to leave them with someone.” 

“We are so grateful for this,” Jodi Ostlund said. “It is absolutely saving us time and money. We are grateful that in the middle of a school day at home, it is a welcome break and a great way to press the ‘easy’ button.”

A common theme expressed by parents was how meaningful the meals are to their children. While the children enjoy the food—muffins, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and fresh fruit are popular items—they enjoy seeing the school staff and familiar faces. The meal pick up also provides a destination for families each day and something they can look forward to when other activities are limited.

“My son loves going to get lunch each day. It’s more than just a meal for him; it’s a connection to the school and a sense of routine when so much has changed,” Toni Cabezas said.

“Carter likes going to get ‘Grab-n-Go,’” Jen Avinger said of her son. “He gets to see these ladies’ friendly faces, and he gets to check on his school (Lincoln). Thank you, USD 418, for providing this for all the children in McPherson.”

Breakfast and lunch are served from 11 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. Monday through Friday at McPherson Middle School, Roosevelt and Lincoln Elementary Schools. 

Dinner is served from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday at Washington Elementary School.

Parents need to bring their children with them once to get meals. At that visit, they will be provided a permit indicating how many children are in the family. On subsequent visits, the parents can come alone or bring their children with them.