Update: Norman Public Schools has changed its meal service schedule to provide student meals weekly rather than daily. Find new details here.
Norman-area school districts will be providing thousands of free meals to students even as school closures stretch through the end of the school year.
Norman and Little Axe public school districts both began feeding students for free this week through support from federal waivers.
While districts initially planned to provide meals until April 6 in accordance with state school closures, NPS and Little Axe will continue to serve free meals for the rest of the semester since the State Board of Education has voted to shutter school buildings and move schools to distance learning.
“That’s been our commitment, in making sure that we have everything in place and making sure that we finish what we started,” said Justin Milner, NPS’ chief operating officer.
NPS is providing free meals via drive-thru style pickups every weekday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at every district school site. Norman families that can't make it to daily pickup lines can call the district's Child Nutrition office at 405-366-5908 to make alternate arrangements.
As of Wednesday afternoon, preliminary counts showed that Norman Public Schools served over 3,000 meals on Wednesday, the district’s first day serving, Milner said.
Little Axe, which has been offering meals since Monday, has served more than 4,000 meals to hundreds of students this week. The district is significantly smaller than NPS, with only 1,300 students, but Little Axe High School principal Trey Kirkpatrick said Little Axe handed out meals to 650 students on Thursday alone, and has seen more students show up every day this week.
Little Axe is offering meals for pickup at its elementary school, but is also delivering meals at bus stops along the district’s regular bus routes from 10 to 11 a.m. Monday through Thursday.
“Everybody that’s responded to it has something positive to say — they’re enjoying the look on the kids’ faces just to see somebody from the school, because it is somebody in our school support staff giving it to them, or their bus driver,” Kirkpatrick said. “The comments we’ve had on our Facebook page are just amazing.”
Both Norman and Little Axe are serving meals to any student 18 or younger regardless, of their affiliation with the public school districts. The districts are serving both lunch and a breakfast item for the next day during the meal pickups.
During the regular school year, a little more than 51% of NPS students — and over 60% of Little Axe’s students — qualify for free or reduced lunches.
But Milner said that in talking with people during Wednesday’s meal pickup, he heard from families that are dealing with layoffs and significant stress because of the COVID-19 crisis ,and now need meal assistance. Kirkpatrick said that Little Axe administrators have noticed people reaching out to ask if families whose children don’t attend the district’s schools can receive meals.
Milner said that NPS has had to serve meals like this during summer vacation or the 2018 statewide teacher walkouts, but the current health crisis means that schools can’t serve the hot lunches they used to. The district has had to transition to grab and go meals, and didn’t start serving until Wednesday so staffers looking to assist had time to be trained or screened, Milner said.
Now, meals are prepared to the same standards that Norman Regional Health Systems prepares food, and are handled by staff who have passed health screenings.
At Little Axe, Kirkpatrick said staffers are wearing gloves, and are setting boxes of food on the steps of school buses for families to pick them up.
NPS is prioritizing its trained nutrition staff members as food handlers, but United Way is also compiling a list of volunteers that can be called on as needed, Milner said. Those interested can fill out a form on United Way’s site.
“We want to be very safe in our approach and making sure we run everyone through those same health protocols…this is a different environment than we’ve ever experienced before,” Milner said.
Little Axe is relying on its nutrition staff and its support staff to handle and deliver meals, since serving meals gives support employees a way to clock hours while schools are not physically open.
Both Milner and Kirkpatrick said they want to make sure that families in their districts are aware of the resources available to them over coming weeks, regardless of whether their students attend Norman or Little Axe schools.
"We want to make sure that they know the availability…we’re all in this together,” Milner said.
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