Tuesday, October 27, 2020

School district continues free breakfast and lunch program

More than 30,000 meals given out, and the need is increasing

By Katherine Nettles

Most weekday mornings, my son jumps enthusiastically out of bed and pulls on his clothes to prepare for a short bike ride down the street. The friendly, familiar faces of Paul Morgan or Bill Kastning are there to greet him in the parking lot of Crested Butte South’s Red Mountain Park and offer a brown bag breakfast, lunch and carton of milk to each child. They hand the sacks through car windows, help stuff them into backpacks and baskets, and always send their customers off with good cheer.

For students throughout the Gunnison Watershed School District, there actually is such a thing as a free lunch.

Since the district closed its doors in mid-March, the grab-and-go sack breakfast and lunch program has provided more than 10,000 meals to families in the north valley with pick-up sites at Crested Butte Community School, Deer Circle, Pitchfork and Crested Butte South. The district has distributed more than 30,000 meals countywide.

For many, the program provides needed food supplies in a time of reduced or lost income. For many, it sets the tone for the day with routine at a time when few other routines remain. For everyone, it’s a tangible connection to the school system even as the students and teachers now interact online, and it makes breakfast and lunch one less thing to manage.

“I think that there’s a misconception that it’s only for families in need,” says Crested Butte Community School kitchen manager Kim Kula. This breakfast and lunch program is funded federally by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and administered and reimbursed through the Colorado Department of Education through June 30.

Gunnison Watershed School District school nutrition director Kristen Osborn explains that this program is different from the regular school year USDA National School Breakfast and Lunch programs, in that with the emergency program, all children 18 and younger can receive free meals. There is no application necessary.

“Especially for families who are now trying to home school their children, this program offers one less thing for them to think about,” says Kula, who has taken a few minutes off from lunch preparation one morning midway through the week to speak with the Crested Butte News. We are interrupted partway through so she can perform in an impromptu video clip for an online PE class, alongside the few other faculty members who happen to be in the building. Within minutes, Kula, Bob Picarro and Sally Hensley are striding outside in unison, masks on, to the beat of “Staying Alive” from Saturday Night Fever.

Once the video production finishes, we resume with a tour of the CBCS kitchen, where Kula sanitizes every single carton of milk and all packages each day before packing them. She moves among crates full of various snacks, vegetables and individually packaged cheeses.

“We do about 100 lunches on a low day in Crested Butte,” she explains. “The average is about 175, and when it’s busy we do up to 300.” Kula says the actual estimated need for this program in Crested Butte is around 11 percent (seven percent during a normal school year), while in Gunnison it is closer to 50 percent (30 percent normally), with 500 lunches distributed on average each day and sometimes up to 1,000.

The need fluctuates, she says, but there is a rhythm to it. “Toward the end of the month, when bills are coming due, that last week to week and a half of the month we get busier in Gunnison,” says Kula.

As the need seems to grow, many have stepped forward to help. There are no “negative” school meal accounts from the school year, as nine separate donors and some seniors with “positive” accounts paid them all off. Food service employees, bus drivers and volunteers throughout the district have worked hard to continue preparing and delivering these meals.

Kula begins prepping, sanitizing and packing bags at around 6 a.m., finishing in the afternoon. Several crates go out to the CBCS parking lot for the town pickup, and Morgan or Kastning come in to pick up the crates for Mt. Crested Butte and for CB South. Kula loads them up with 160 lunches at a time, plus an ice chest full of milk. “And once they bring all this stuff back, everything has to be disinfected, even down to the pencils,” she says. “Anything that leaves the kitchen is considered contaminated.”

The feedback Kula hears is that the meals make people’s lives easier, save money and trips to the grocery store, and give kids something to brighten their day. “The kids are liking something different from what their mom makes, too,” she says.

“I order a variety of things and try to have something different every couple of days,” Kula says. The meals always meet the CDE requirements, with grains, proteins and fruit or vegetables in each bag. “Some of it is more kid-approved, and some of it is more parent-approved,” she says.

When we get home from our bike ride routine, my son has an orange and a bagel and sits down to listen to the recorded morning message from his teacher. Another day has started, and in our new morning rhythm we all find a sense of familiarity.

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