food insecurity

Pandemic Has Highlighted Need to Curb Food Insecurity for Students and Families

Fitchburg Public Schools have served more than 1.2 million meals since the coronavirus pandemic began, with nutrition services workers needing to find creative ways to reach and feed the district's 5,200 students and their families

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When schools in Massachusetts and across the country shut down in March 2020, one of the biggest concerns was figuring out how to feed children who might otherwise go hungry.

"So many families during normal times face food insecurity, and it really became even more so during the pandemic," said David Semenza, the nutrition services director of Fitchburg Public Schools.

Semenza and his staff of about four dozen were tasked with coming up with creative ways to reach and feed the district's roughly 5,200 students and their families.

"We had to reinvent an industry on the fly," said Semenza.

Even with meal pickup sites at schools, at parks and on buses, they quickly realized not everyone was able to come to them.

"Didn't have transportation, maybe they were in quarantine themselves and couldn't leave the house," said Semenza. "Working with principals and guidance counselors, we helped identify these families."

The nutrition services department dropped off almost daily contactless meals to roughly 75 families.

Add that to the meal pickup sites, and Fitchburg Public Schools was able to accomplish the Herculean task of serving over 1.2 million meals from the start of the pandemic through the start of this school year.

"It was a good backup, not only, you know, just for my family, but for a lot of families in this area," said Charmain Brideau of Fitchburg.

Brideau is not only a mother of five children in Fitchburg schools, but she is a nutrition services worker who had to stop working during the pandemic to help with her children's classes.

She says the meals were a lifeline for many families like hers.

"It just took that edge off and made it a little bit easier during a really tough time," Brideau said.

With kids back in school, nutritional services are mostly back to normal now. But the USDA is continuing its free breakfast and lunch program to keep kids fed.

"It helps ease some of the burdens I think families are still facing right now," said Semenza.

Semenza says through it all, his staff has made the impossible seem possible.

"I had asked them, 'how are you able to do this?'" Semenza recalled. "[One worker] looked at me and said, 'we feed kids, it's what we do.'"

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