By James Kay
After Oak Park and River Forest High School announced on March 12 that it canceled classes due to the coronavirus pandemic, the school's food service department stepped up in a major way.
On March 13 and 16, the food service employees were stationed in the pedestrian mall near the school's football field and provided shelf-stable meals to District 200 students who receive free and reduced lunches at the school.
"I was talking to Michele Zurakowski, who runs Oak Park food pantry, last week and I said, 'I really think it's a possibility the schools will close," said Karin Sullivan, the high school's director of communications and community relations. "She said, 'There are going to be a lot of hungry kids if that happens.' Even though we were already doing a lot of planning, she planted that seed about feeding those families in need. I am glad that we are doing it and D97 is doing it."
The meal packages, which included five days of both breakfast and lunch, fall under the National School Lunch Program's criteria for what constitutes as a healthy meal. The meals contain a grain, milk, vegetable, fruit and meat or meat alternate components.
"We packed them in a way that each day has variety from one day to the next," said clinical dietetic intern Anita Davila. "Whether the variety comes in the flavor of the juice, the vegetable component or the different flavors of milk, we are able to provide that."
In addition, OPRF is the food service provider for Oak Park School District 97. On March 16 the high school delivered a week's worth of meals (five breakfasts and five lunches) to Longfellow School and Brooks Middle School for D97 students who receive free or reduce lunches to pick up.
"This is an unprecedented and challenging situation, but community leaders are making every effort to ensure that every student and family in Oak Park has the information, support and resources they need while schools are closed," said Amanda Siegfried, director of communications for D97.
On March 13, OPRF's food service department provided one day's worth of perishable meals to high school. While the food service department didn't provide a firm number for how many meals were distributed, they estimated that more than 100 meals were given out on March 16 to OPRF students.
Food service staff were prepared to cook meals on March 13 when classes were canceled the night before, throwing a wrench in its plan.
"We have been preparing for this for over a week now, so the only thing that threw me was closing school on Friday," said Micheline Piekarski, the school's director of food services. "I mean we went in thinking we were going to cook. We ended up having a food trade-up for 1,800 people for District 97 and food trade-up for the high school. That's why we used perishable meals [on March 13]. There's only so much you can put back in the freezer."
Piekarski said in a phone interview with Wednesday Journal that, until there are more updates involving the cancellation of classes, more meals won't be distributed. According to the its academic calendar, the school has spring break from March 23-27 so there was already an existing plan to not serve meals during that time.
One OPRF student who showed up to pick up meals was appreciative of what the school was doing to support those who depend on this service.
"Some of us really need this," said the student, who wanted to remain anonymous. "This situation is horrible and odd. Honestly, I'm glad the school did this during all of this."
On March 16, the food service staff of 22 people worked from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and wore latex gloves when distributing the meals. Davila didn't seem too concerned about the safety of providing the meals to everyone funneling into the ped mall.
"I'm really not that worried," said Davila. "We are just handing them out as we go and it's not really different than walking down the sidewalk you know?"
Families who did not pick up meals on March 16 will have another opportunity to pick up meals from OPRF's food service on March 20 from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. They will contain six days' worth of meals to cover breakfast and lunch for students.
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