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Buffalo schools kick off free grab-and-go meal service

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
A sign outside P.S. #92 BUILD Community School on Buffalo's East Side welcomes parents and caretakers to pick up free grab-and-go meals for children while their schools are closed through April 20.

With schools closed in Buffalo and across Western New York, many districts are grappling with the immediate challenge of how to keep students fed who normally rely on meals served at school.

Concern for student nourishment is especially high in Buffalo, where nearly three-quarters of the public-school enrollment qualifies for free and reduced lunch and the district has state approval to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students because that figure is so high. In an effort to keep doing so, the district opened the doors of 28 schools for the first time Tuesday to give parents and caretakers a two-hour window in which to pick up free breakfast and lunch for any students in need.

“It’s real helpful because I was starting to run out of breakfast food,” said Michelle Williams, a mother who picked up meals for her two children at P.S. #309 East Community High School.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Michelle Williams, a mother of two, picks up her daily allotment of free school meals at P.S. #309 East Community High School on March 17, 2020.

Williams added that she plans to return every day while schools in Buffalo and Erie County remain closed until April 20. All schools in New York State have also been ordered to close by Wednesday for a period of two weeks, ending April 1.

“They [the parents] are scaredbut they’re coming out because they know they need food for their kids. So, we’re here to offer food for them,” said Aretha James, a cook manager at P.S. #37 Marva J. Daniel Futures Academy. “We’re offering them breakfast and lunch, milk and fruit, so they have food for today and tomorrow morning… and it’s going to be until this crisis is over.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Signs hanging at P.S. #37 Futures Academy direct and inform parents about Buffalo Public Schools' policy for free meals during the extended school closure.

Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash said Tuesday afternoon that the district served about 12,000 grab-and-go meals on day one of the operation, but he expects that number to rise to anywhere from 45,000 to 60,000 meals per day in the weeks to come. 

The district’s meal protocol says parents and/or caretakers can pick up one breakfast and one lunch per child in their immediate household between 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each school day. The meals will be distributed at 28 schools across the city, including all of the district’s community schools. Families do not need to pick up meals at the same school their children attend.

But not all parents in need of food assistance are willing or able to make a special trip to pick up meals every day.

“I’m not going to come back up here every day to get food. I’m not doing that,” said Candace Moore, a mother of four children who attend P.S. #92 BUILD Community School.

Moore said the food she picked up Tuesday would be helpful for that day, but she had to take a cab to get to the school. She also said she’s worried that her children won’t be able to move on to the next grade if they miss a month of school.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Packages of academic materials organized by grade and teacher sit waiting for pick-up or delivery at P.S. #37 Futures Academy.

District officials and teachers said they’re doing everything they can to make sure student learning continues while schools are closed but agreed that this is unchartered territory.

“There is a reliance on families to continue the education,” said Serena Restivo, principal of Futures Academy, where her teachers spent Tuesday getting academic materials out to students and developing communication plans for families.

“I think we’re doing everything we possibly can to ease the worries right now,” she said, however, “even the staff in this building and in my own household, I think we will always have some worry that people cannot, you know, suppress for us. But I think this is a piece of it just to really help out and let the community know and our families know that we are still here.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Antionette Wright, a manager cook for Buffalo Public Schools, helps organize grab-and-go meal service at P.S. #37 Futures Academy. Wright urges parents not to panic.

In addition to kicking off meal service at selected sites Tuesday, most Buffalo schools also facilitated parent pick-ups of student learning materials for a few hours Tuesday afternoon. The district is now organizing a mass delivery, via school bus, of academic packets for all students whose families were not able to pick up their materials in person.

“What I would like to share is just please everybody: Don’t panic,” said Antionette Wright, a district cook manager who worked alongside James packaging meals for students at Futures Academy starting at 7 a.m. Tuesday. “We’ve been through worse things, especially here in Buffalo.”

Are you a parent or caretaker with a story about how you’re coping with school closings? Or are you an educator with ideas for WBFO’s education coverage over the next month? We want to hear from you! Please contact reporter Kyle Mackie on Twitter (@KyleMackieWBFO), Instagram (kylemackie.buffalo), or write to her at kmackie@wbfo.org. Thank you—and stay safe.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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