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RSS begins delivering meal packs for virtual students

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools delivered thousands of meals every day during spring and summer 2020, and now buses are rolling out with meals again.

When public schools were ordered to close in March, the district scrambled to keep kids learning and keep them fed. Meals were delivered by yellow buses for free, even to children who were too young to attend school. RSS switched to a pickup model in August after classes started and schools switched to a blended learning model and many students moved online only.

But the switch to meals being picked up at schools brought worries that the district was not reaching all students because of transportation barriers, said RSS Nutrition Director Lisa Altmann. In October, she began exploring options to deliver meals to students the district was missing. The logistics of switching to something like last year’s model were more difficult.

After asking the Board of Education for new equipment and sorting through the logistics, the new and improved result looks a lot like Thursday morning at Carson High School.

Carson High School nutrition workers on Thursday packed 36 boxes full of meals to make the rounds to students. They packed 40 the next day. In total, the district delivered more than 500 meals last week and about 600 this week. That number is rising. Altmann expects more people to keep requesting the program.

Some drivers have lost hours during the mixed calendar schedule, so delivering meals is a way for them to make up lost time. Deliveries have mostly gone smooth, except for the occasional parent who is not home or not being able to deliver because of a pet. The department follows up with families, Altmann and some nutrition staff make second trips personally to try and deliver boxes that did not make it to their destinations in the morning. She said kids’ excitement to get the meals makes all the effort worthwhile.

Carson Nutrition Training Manager Heather Strickland said schools ask families if there are other children in the home they can eat, too. That is only allowed because of waivers in place.

Altmann said families signed up for this program, and she eventually hopes to transition to all meal boxes. For now, the daily pickups are working for most students.

Manager trainee Carina Rosales said last week she helped deliver some boxes that could not be delivered by bus drivers. The kids were waiting for them.

The new system is made possible by heat-sealing machines that allow kitchens to package prepared food on site. The result is containers with plastic coverings that have food prepared fresh in RSS kitchens. Fruit and vegetables are also sealed on site. Items such as drinks are pre-packaged.

The meals being delivered look much like the ones being enjoyed by students who pick them up. They include barbecue sandwiches, fruits, nachos and the iconic RSS snack: Salisbury Dippers with spaghetti sauce.

Families are given meal bundle lists along with instructions for how to store and prepare the meals when they are delivered. Preparation is simple. The instructions are simple and only require a microwave. Most food only needs to be refrigerated, if that. The mini pizzas need to be frozen.

The menu is set, though it can change depending on availability. So far, Altmann said, no one has requested modifications for special dietary needs, but the district will accommodate students who need the service.

There may be a student enrolled virtually with other children in the home, and the department will deliver meals for those kids as well.

The federal waivers that allow the district to do this classify its current operations under the summer meal program. The waivers, which have given the nutrition department unprecedented freedom to provide free meals for all students and distribute them through pickups and deliveries, are set to expire in June.

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