Out for delivery: School staff providing mobile meals through crisis

Out for delivery: School staff providing mobile meals through crisis

Randy Aubin of Woonsocket, left, and Bob Lizotte of North Smithfield, both members of the facilities staff at the Woonsocket Education Department, load food packages onto trucks outside Hamlet Middle School for delivery to students last Thursday, May 21. Other staff members assisting with the deliveries include Joe Croteau of North Smithfield and Tom Lambert of North Smithfield (not pictured). (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – Every other Wednesday morning, members of the Woonsocket Education Department facilities staff travel to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank on Niantic Avenue in Providence. Once there, they load up their trucks with cardboard boxes, each containing about seven days’ worth of food for a typical child. Staff members then return to Hamlet Middle School, where they unload the boxes and sort them for delivery.

The following day, staff members fan out across the city, dropping the food packages on porches from East Woonsocket to Fairmount. Bob Lizotte, facilities supervisor, coordinates the schedule, which includes deliveries to approximately 100 city families every week.

“For the most part, they’re very appreciative,” he said.

Meal deliveries by facilities staff is just one example of how local workers have taken on unusual roles to help meet the need during the COVID-19 crisis. Al Notarianni, chief operating officer for the Woonsocket Education Department, said the deliveries are intended replace meal pickups for those families in need of food assistance but unable to leave their homes. Access to school lunch has been one of the major concerns of distance learning in Woonsocket, where 75 percent of students are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch.

While Sodexo Food Services has continued to provide breakfast and lunch for students at pickup locations around the city since March, some families, said Notarianni, have been stuck at home due to quarantine restrictions or transportation issues.

“It could be as simple as a student tipping off the teacher in class they’re hungry or a parent advocating and saying, ‘I’m in a bind here,’” he said.

Since March, Notarianni estimates his staff has delivered close to 5,000 meals to Woonsocket families free of charge through the Meals4Kids program. That’s in addition to the breakfasts and lunches provided by Sodexo, which Ellen Shalvey, Sodexo food service director for Woonsocket schools, said topped 40,000 last week. Between the two programs, the city is now approaching 50,000 meals that have been distributed to students since schools closed on March 16.

“We hear people on the news thanking the frontline workers and thanking the medical workers, and I’m in the background saying, ‘Don’t forget to say thank you to the lunch ladies,’” said Shalvey.

In recent weeks, deliveries by facilities staff have also included Chromebooks as the district shifts to online learning for younger students. Notarianni said staff have continued to make repairs in the buildings while students are at home.

“They’re really unsung heroes in all of this in terms of going in, they’re quiet, going home,” he said.

Though the official school year will soon come to a close, Shalvey said Sodexo will continue to provide meal pickups through the summer as part of the summer meals program. The locations, she said, are still being determined in order to abide by social distancing measures.