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TEXARKANA — Even during the best of times, food insecurity is something many children face in this area and schools have programs in place to address those needs. Now that schools are closed and shelter-in-place orders have been issued, that need has grown exponentially.

Area schools have stepped up to meet that need, with Liberty-Eylau Independent School District, Pleasant Grove ISD, Texarkana, Arkansas, School District and Texarkana ISD keeping food services available and adapting to these unsure times.

Each district is offering meals to students during the week, but with a more personal delivery system.

L-EISD, TASD and TISD are delivering free breakfasts and lunches by school buses and offer pickup meals, with TISD opening its Tiger Food Truck for service as well. TISD offers the grab-and-go meals at its campuses, PGISD is offering grab-and-go breakfast and lunch at the high school and TASD has sites open at College Hill Elementary and North Heights for grab-and-go, and meals are available for pickup at the L-E Middle School.

Adapting their normal routines and continuing food service during this time is something districts have worked diligently to achieve, as their leaders realize the importance of helping ensure each student's basic needs are met.

L-EISD provides breakfast and lunch for around 800 students each weekday, District Communications Director Matt Fry said. Those mornings, he's also on a bus to help personally deliver the meals to their various bus stops. He said that many families in the district have told them they would go without eating if the school did not offer the meals.

"They tell us they don't know what they would do if we weren't here," Fry said. "It's a crazy situation for them to be in."

TISD's executive director of public relations, Tina Veal-Gooch, said that district has experienced the same.

"The response has been very positive and overwhelming," she said. "Parents/students are thankful and appreciative that this program is continuing to be available."

On the Arkansas side, Genia Bullock, TASD director of public relations, said the response they are receiving has been a good one.

"The counts have been continuing to climb daily, and we are getting many positive responses from the recipients," she said. "On the first day of operation at the two sites, we served about 100 meals. The meal count for April 8 was 1,782. Although we are still having a strong turnout with our drive-through sites, the transporting of the meals has been a major contributing factor in the steady increase in our numbers."

At PGISD, the district is distributing 50-60 meals per school day, down from the approximately 1,000 the district served in-house prior to closure, Derick Sibley, PGISD director of finance, told the district's Board of Trustees during their regular board meeting April 9.

Shelby Akin, PGISD's director of marketing and communications, said the district has seen an increase in the number of grab-and-go meals since it first began offering them on March 17.

"Families have been appreciative and thankful for the opportunities to pick up meals for their children," she said.

Fry said that offering the meals helps everyone, including parents who have lost their jobs and those who are still working during the COVID-19 crisis.

"It's just going to continue. We just don't see ending it as an option," he said. "You either have parents who aren't working and so there is financial strain, you have parents who are working, but their kids are at home and wouldn't have a way to get food. Or you've got people who are really scared to go out and don't need to go out with all this shelter in place, so if we can get the food there, that's a good thing."

He added that they have not seen an additional cost to provide the meals. TISD, which is also contracted to provide meal services to Bloomburg, DeKalb, McLeod, New Boston, Linden-Kildare and Redwater ISDs, has seen an increase in cost because of the need to package and deliver meals in disposable containers that would have been typically served on washable trays. They serve upward of 5,000 meals each weekday.

"Costs are irrelevant at this time," Veal-Gooch said. "Our want is to make sure that our students have the food that they need."

McLeod ISD ended the meal delivery program on April 8 because of concerns about transmission of the coronavirus.

Districts pay for the free meals through their food service and USDA funds and through the Seamless Summer Option, which allows churches, schools and other organizations to offer no-cost meals during the summer months to children 18 and younger.

"Financially, we knew we were going to be able to make the money work out, so that wasn't ever going to be a hindrance to getting meals out to kids," Fry said. "That was kind of (Superintendent Ronnie Thompson's) thing from the beginning, whatever we have to do to feed kids, that's what we are going to do. We're asking them to learn from home and we're asking their parents to try to teach them at home and all that. Kids aren't ready to learn until their basic needs are met, and if they're at home wondering about where their next meal is going to come from, they're certainly not going to care about English or algebra. At the beginning, we decided that we're going to take care of food, then we'll get all our plans together for schoolwork and all that and it's a good symbiotic relationship."

TISD Superintendent Paul Norton also said they were glad to be able to offer the free meals during this time of closure and that it was essential for them to do so.

"It's important to us that we continue to meet the needs of our students, not only from an academic standpoint but through nutrition as well. Since the district closure of campuses, we have had our Tiger Food Truck, along with six buses, transporting food out to 21 locations and neighborhoods within TISD. Additionally, we are doing all that we can to make sure that during Friday meal deliveries/pick-ups sufficient food is provided for the student for the weekend," he said "We cannot say enough about the many members of our Child Nutrition Team and other staff volunteers who have taken the time and spent endless hours making sure our Grab-and-Go Meal Program happens each and every day. We are also so appreciative of the hard work of Harvest Texarkana and their continued efforts in making sure that our Backpack Program continues during this time. The response we have received from students and their parents has been overwhelming and so appreciative of what we can provide. It is one of those true blessings that we have been able to witness firsthand during this difficult time."

Information on meal delivery is available at each school district's website and as follows:

- L-EISD, https://s3.amazonaws.com/scschoolfiles/736/food_service_covid.pdf

- PGISD, https://www.pgisd.net/Page/3974

- TASD, http://www.tasd7.net/news/what_s_new/c_o_v_i_d-19_u_p_d_a_t_e_s

- TISD, http://www.txkisd.net/pdf/slider/Student%20Grab%20&%20Go%20Lunches%202020-April.pdf

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