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WHITINGHAM — A free meal program is keeping children fed and school staff employed during the coronavirus pandemic and a time of uncertainty.

"It's been quite a feat to get this going," said Lonny Paige, food service director for the two Twin Valley schools. "And it's great that people are enjoying it and taking advantage of this program."

He said the meals have prompted a flurry of thank-you notes from students.

Families can sign up for the free meals by calling any of the schools in the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union or being at any of the regular bus stops during delivery times. The program began March 19, a few days after school buildings were closed by the governor's order and students moved to remote learning out of concern for the coronavirus.

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Paige said Twin Valley is sending out about 300 breakfast and lunches each school day, for a total of about 600 meals a day. The meals are being prepared at the middle and high school in Whitingham, then delivered to bus stops and residences in Whitingham, Wilmington and Jacksonville. Families need to sign permission slips to receive meals at home.

At Readsboro Central, in the Southern Valley Unified Union District, about 280 meals are being made daily. The food is going to students in Readsboro, Stamford and Halifax.

Paige runs a summer meals program for Twin Valley in which Southern Valley is included.

"What became evident to the powers that be at the federal level was that if all the schools shut down, there are a lot of kids that need to be fed," he said. "So they looked at various programs that they already have in place and the summer food service program was the one that best fit the need that was going to happen."

Paige described the federal and state governments as "fantastic" as they've "bent some of the rules" usually applied to the summer food service program to make sense during the pandemic.

For instance, meals don't need to be served in a group setting.

"That won't work in this situation because we're supposed to be split up," Paige said. "Six feet at least."

One rule for the summer program normally requires children be present to receive a meal. Paige said the current program allows for adults to get the food without children being there.

Another rule would have only allowed one meal to be dropped off at a time. Instead, breakfast and lunch can be delivered in one trip.

Paige said he's been approached by a number of community members who wanted to volunteer to help. But one of the district's priorities is to keep people employed.

Paraprofessionals have been hired for the effort. They're helping to prepare food and hand out meals delivered by bus drivers who also have stayed employed during the pandemic.

"It's kind of a win-win for the food service because we need the help," Paige said. "And it's great that we can keep people employed and getting a paycheck."

His friend Jacob Gallogly, a local chef who has participated in Twin Valley's Jr. Iron Chef contests, contacted him about assisting. Paige recalled Gallogly saying he was going stir crazy so he was brought on to help enhance the meals. On Monday, Gallogly was making a pasta salad. Last week, he made potato salad.

"It's just stuff I don't have time to do," Paige said. "It's wonderful to be able to offer a little bit of a bonus with each meal."

When the West Dover ski resort Mount Snow abruptly closed in response to the pandemic, the purchasing manager invited Paige to see if he could use any of the leftover food. Paige said he filled his vehicle.

When restaurants and bars closed, Hill Country Vending of West Dover donated bags of chips that couldn't be sold.

The Deerfield Valley Food Pantry and a senior gathering space in Wilmington also reached out about helping. But Paige said his team was pretty well covered.

James Walker, operations manager for Windham Southwest, proposed using buses and regular bus stops for the program. He spent time preparing meals when one of the kitchen staff at Twin Valley had to leave to tend to child care duties.

The program's been going "extremely well," in Walker's view.

"We've maintained the number of meals throughout the supervisory union," he said. "I expect maybe some additions here as people's financial situations continue to change."

Walker finds that bus drivers, parents and students are appreciative. He said there is some consideration of offering dinners in some way. He said the Food 4 Kids chapter created by members of the West Dover Congregational Church has been providing about 40 meals a week to students who are in need of food on evenings and weekends.

Receiving regular reports from the state, Walker heard some concern about potential food shortages.

"We have yet to see them," he said, "so that's a good thing."

Walker said he wanted to give "a big, big heap of thanks to Lonny and the kitchen staff, and the kitchen staff at Readsboro as well." He also thanked the paraprofessionals who are "working well out of their job description" to help and the custodial staff who clean school buildings twice a day to avoid running the risk of spreading the virus.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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