The number of Columbus area children needing a stable meal has skyrocketed due to lingering impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Columbus Public Schools offers a free meal on weekdays throughout the summer for children who may not have the opportunity for regular meals. It’s held at Columbus Middle School – with Centennial Elementary and Lost Creek Elementary being added to the program this year -- from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. June 8 through July 24.
“Our numbers last year were somewhere between 250 and 300 per day. This year, we’re over 1,000 per day,” said Randi Masek, food service director at Lunchtime Solutions. “We have also added the two other locations because of the demand in our community, so that has helped with our numbers, as well.”
Summer school started this week which resulted in a slight increase of a couple of hundred kids receiving lunches. As of Monday afternoon, 14,794 lunches had been served, CPS stated.
Lunchtime Solutions is a school food service management company. Masek is stationed at Columbus Middle and is in charge of counting the number of meals that go out.
“(Monday) was one of the highest totals so far,” Masek said. “We were right at, I think, 1,056 between all three schools. This week summer school started so our numbers went up a little bit, naturally, because of that. It’s catching on and word got out. It’s growing on a daily basis.”
Paula Brandenburgh, food service operations coordinator at CPS, manages the summer food program. She said the pandemic has also changed the way food is given to children.
Normally, the children would physically come to CMS and eat the meals in the cafeteria.
“For the regular (days)… the child has to be here and we have accountable for each child. Now parents or other people can come pick them up,” Brandenburgh said.
The meals are bagged and include milk, fruit, vegetables and an entrée that is typically a sandwich.
“We’ve been serving hot entrees like cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, chicken nuggets, things like that,” Masek said.
Communication is vital for the program to make sure the schools don’t run out of food, Brandenburgh added.
“We’re watching and keeping track of our counts at different times how the children are coming and picking them up as to whether we need to cook some more product or not,” Brandenburgh said. “If a person comes at one minute to 1:00, we need to ensure that we have food to give them also.”
Brandenburgh also noted that there’s a higher percentage of kids taking advantage of the lunch program this year.
“It’s good because I feel that there is a real need for children to be fed,” Brandenburgh said. “I know a lot of people think, ‘We’re here in Nebraska, we produce food.’ But there are a lot of children who would be very hungry and go without food if we did not have this program.”
Several organizations had a part in ensuring that CPS had the funds to expand the program: The Columbus Area Future Fund, Community and Family Partnership, Columbus Area United Way and the CPS Foundation.
Dee Hanson, of the Columbus Area Future Fund, noted that they helped assist with obtaining a grant for the lunch program; the Nebraska Community Foundation awarded the funds.
“I think there’s always a big need in the community; COVID has just made things that much more complicated. The need has been greater than it’s ever been,” Hanson said.
Hannah Schrodt is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach her via email at email@example.com.
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