Douglas County schools begin offering free lunch, breakfast

District program runs Monday through Friday for all children


On the first day the Douglas County School District offered free meals to children during coronavirus-spurred school closures, Jen Peifer, manager of operations for the district's Nutrition Services department, did not know if she should expect 10, 100 or 1,000 children.

The global pandemic is causing unprecedented ripple effects throughout society, including the closure of districts to in-person learning, creating potential barriers for children who depend on schools for reliable and nutritious meals.

That's why DCSD, like numerous districts in the state, has arranged to provide children with free breakfast and lunch during the closure of its facilities.

Peifer and her team prepared more than 800 lunches for the program's launch on March 23 but would need to assess the demand as the week played out, she said.

“We have no idea if that's enough, or too many,” she said.

By the time the first day wrapped up, the district passed out 522 lunches. On the menu were an Uncrustables sandwich or a bagel, paired with fresh fruit, vegetables, a cheese stick and milk. Meals will change each day. The services are available to any child 18 or under, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Families do not have to provide proof of income or residency to receive meals.

They need only drive up to one of the four locations throughout the county and tell a district employee how many children need meals. The employee then hands families the sack lunches and a breakfast for the following morning, without anyone needing to exit his or her vehicle. Those within walking distance of locations can also walk up to the stations.

The district will continue providing meals until schools reopen. As of March 24, schools were scheduled to be closed through at least April 17.

If schools are shuttered for the remainder of the school year, as has happened in Kansas, the meal service will keep rolling until DCSD transitions to its annual summer lunch program, which runs similarly.

Peifer said the community needs to support students at this time. About 10% of the district's 68,000 students receive free or reduced meals.

“I think Douglas County if often looked at as a really wealthy school district and everybody on the top of their heads assumes that families will be fine,” Peifer said. “There are still significant pockets of hunger in this district and families that are struggling.”

Parents who picked up meals at South Ridge Elementary School in Castle Rock, one of the four locations in Douglas County, said the meal service brought them peace of mind.

For Jennifer Truhler, a Castle Rock mother of four, including three school-age children, the pandemic's economic fallout has made life tough in numerous ways. An assistant manager for Not Your Daughter's Jeans at the Outlets at Castle Rock, Truhler is currently out of work.

The outlet mall closed through at least March 30 to help slow the virus' spread. Truhler has a paycheck through the week of March 23 but does not know if she'll be paid the following week.

“It's hard. It's hard not knowing what's going to happen next month or even next week,” she said.

Truhler has not applied for unemployment. She does not want to unless she's certain she is permanently losing her job, she said. Her husband is in the military but stationed in Texas. He helps as much as he can, Truhler said, but she largely feels like a single mother.

Were it not for the district's meal program, she'd be spending more money on food than usual and worrying about emptied-out grocery stores, she said.

Cindy Fishell had similar concerns. One of the most alarming parts of the pandemic for her family is going grocery shopping once a week, only to find many empty shelves.

“There's nothing there,” she said. “Cleared out. I was shocked. I've never seen an aisle so empty.”

Bread, chicken, soup and non-perishables were popular items at King Soopers, Sprouts Farmers Market and Sam's Club, she said. The district's food program helped ease some of her worries.

“I thought it was a great idea,” she said of the meal program. “Mostly because there's a lot of needy people this time of year.”

South Ridge Elementary School Principal Erin Carlson was excited to selected as a location for the meal program.

The school is walking distance for many district families and a close-knit community, which she hoped would make families feel comfortable picking up meals. They prepared 200 meals to hand out on March 23, she said.

“We are the only school,” she said of the program's locations, which also include apartments and parks. “We have the highest number of students on free and reduced lunch. And because we've also hosted the summer feeding program here in the past, it just allows easy access for our community where they may not have transportation to another location.”

About 40% of the school's 600 students receive free and reduced meals, Carlson said. She hopes the program serves them well.

“It's just really important for our kids,” she said. “You just never know what these families are going through.”


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