Catholic schools’ to-go meal program a lifeline for students who depend on it

Rose-Erin Love, right, a kitchen staff member at Most Holy Trinity School in Detroit’s Corktown, passes out to-go, boxed meals to students and their families Wednesday, March 25. Qualifying schools across the state are providing meals to any child under the age of 18 who needs food. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Many students rely on school for their only meal of the day, and Catholic schools are stepping up to make sure they receive it

DETROIT — As life comes to a screeching halt because of COVID-19, people still have the basic need to eat.

This need is acutely felt in many public and parochial schools, where the meal many students receive might be the only one they get all day. 

Earlier this month, the Michigan Department of Education requested a federal waiver for K-8 schools in the state to continue to provide meals while schools remain closed. “Under this waiver, any student aged 18 and under is eligible to receive two meals per day, whether or not that student qualifies for any free or reduced lunch program,” the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Department of Catholic Schools said in a March 14 memo. 

Bob Nelson, director of food services for the archdiocese, said 27 schools in the archdiocese currently receive food assistance, including Most Holy Trinity School in Detroit, Gesu School in Detroit, St. Valentine School in Redford and St. Anne School in Warren. 

Boxed lunches are packed and ready to go outside of Most Holy Trinity School on March 25. Principal Karina Lepkowski said the school’s staff is still trying to gauge how many meals need to be made each day.

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Nelson, who owns and operates Ovations Dining Services, said only schools enrolled in the National Schools Lunch Program are able to receive assistance, however, under the current unusual circumstances, any child under the age of 18 is able to receive up to two meals per day at any designated school, regardless of whether or not the student is enrolled at the school or previously qualified for the lunch program. 

Nelson is working with schools to provide nutritional and balanced meals — only now, the meals will be distributed to-go, in compliance with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order closing all schools in the state as part of social distancing practices.

“Obviously, the kids need to eat, especially in low-income areas,” Nelson said, adding many schools have high numbers of students receiving free meals. “Sometimes, it is their only meal of the day, so we definitely want to provide that. That’s the most important part — that these kids are able to eat a nice, healthy meal.”

However, not all of the archdiocese’s schools enrolled in the food program have reached out to begin distributing food during the COVID-19 crisis, Nelson said. As of Monday, March 23, only four schools had signed up for the grab-and-go program. 

Nelson said he isn't sure why more schools aren't taking advantage of the program, but some factors might include the fact that some students live too far away from their schools to access the program, or that students who need food might have a closer school in the neighborhood where they can access a meal.

Maria Avila, a kitchen staff member, is one of the few employees allowed at Most Holy Trinity to prep and to pass out meals. Principal Karina Lepkowski said distributing the meals is part of the school’s greater mission and Catholic identity. 

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St. Valentine principal Rachel Damuth said the Redford school is working hard to spread the word about the program via social media. 

“We just started, and we are seeing how it’s going,” Damuth told Detroit Catholic. “It is kind of a leap of faith; we have never done anything like this before. We know that there are kids that need it, and we are going to try our best to meet that need.”

At Most Holy Trinity, principal Karina Lepkowski estimates approximately 40 percent of her students receive lunch at school every day, whether free, reduced or paid. Starting Monday, March 23, Most Holy Trinity began serving both lunch and the next day’s breakfast, all available to go. 

Lepkowski said Most Holy Trinity’s faculty and staff will remain on alert for the first few days the program is in effect to gauge which families did not show up to either pick up students’ remote learning packages or to pick up food. 

“We will be checking in with those parents and families that we don’t see this week,” Lepkowski said. “If there is a need for us to deliver food to them, we will do so.”

Lepkowski is asking available teachers volunteer to drive the food to their students’ homes. 

Rose-Erin Love bags boxed meals for a student and his family. Most Holy Trinity is providing both lunch and the next day’s breakfast.

Furthermore, Most Holy Trinity will spend the first couple of days figuring out how many meals it needs to make available, both for their own enrolled students and for any child under the age of 18 who needs a meal. 

“I know that our parents work really hard to send their students to our school, so we want to be as supportive as possible during these times for them,” Lepkowski said. 

Lepkowski said the effort is all part of the school’s greater Catholic mission. 

“In our Catholic faith, we are here to serve others,” Lepkowski said. “Part of our mission as a school is to be of service to others. We want to make sure we are living that out in word and in action so our students see that it’s not just something that we write on paper; we actually truly believe that, and through our actions, we show it.”