Free meals available during distance learning


Designed by Jacob Meiners

The district aims to provide free meals to the youth in Owatonna as a response to COVID-19

Jacob Meiners, Writer

The Owatonna Public School system has recently implemented a new strategy for distributing lunches to students and youth throughout Owatonna. Ms. Sarah Brooks, Director of Nutrition Services in the district, is one of the many people behind the operation that is trying to keep the bellies in Owatonna full. COVID-19 has impacted the U.S. immensely since March of this year, and the impact runs much deeper than it may seem, even to the point where kids may not have meals throughout the week due to distance learning. Brooks and the district office, along with funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, have implemented a new system of distributing breakfast and lunch to kids in Owatonna for free as a response to this pandemic.

Expanding the horizons of food distribution in the Owatonna Public School system was imminent as the effects of COVID-19 rapidly poured in following the shutdown of schools including Owatonna Public Schools. Many kids in the community had decided to turn to a full distance learning schedule, which meant they would not have been able to get the daily breakfast and lunch offered. Of course, that was earlier in the year when there was an option, but there is hope that the hybrid schedule will return later in the school year. Brooks said, “When COVID hit, we recognized that the nation, overall, was going through some tough times and food is a necessity. And that our most important population, which is our youth, are getting meals and our families affected by this are not having to have that extra burden of figuring out how they are going to pay for those meals.”

Kids that were following the hybrid schedule also had over half of the week on distance learning, so they also were available to get free lunches for their days out of school and in school. When in school, meals are the same as previous years, made hot and ready. Now that the public schools have integrated into a full distance learning schedule, pickup days, times and locations have changed. You are able to pick up your meal bundle on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. at either of the five locations, Owatonna High School, Owatonna Middle School, McKinley Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and Wilson Elementary. There is no sign up sheet or any forms to fill out, just show up to one of the locations and get your meal bundle.

For hybrid learners, pickup days were the last day they were in school that given week, so generally, pickup days for group one were on Tuesdays right after school, and group two was on Fridays right after school. Those bundles were all cold, shelf stable lunches. This schedule will most likely continue as it used to if we do end up integrating back into a hybrid learning schedule. Brooks and her staff, however, are being creative with the meals and trying to keep them fresh by mixing them up so students are not getting the same meals over and over again. Every meal is packaged in a bundle, with each different part of each meal packaged separately in portions. Portion sizes do not differ throughout the age groups, as the free meals are open to kids in town aged 1-18. The district wants to keep food available for all kids in the area, even if they are not a part of the Owatonna Public School system.

Owatonna High School senior Mason Kunkel said, “I like having free lunches, but I do feel like I am stealing from the school everyday.” Kunkel said he has been so used to paying for meals that it seems wrong at times taking them from the school.

Brooks had a very strong message, imploring that students should not feel guilty or ashamed that they are taking these meals for free, as they are funded by the USDA and meant to make it easier on families in this tough time. Caleb Schuler, OHS Senior, said, “It is kind of nice not having to enter in my lunch pin everyday.” Multiple families have given feedback to Ms. Brooks, saying that they are very appreciative and happy with what they have done so far with distributing these free meals. Brooks does, although, point out that there are some things they can improve on, like giving larger portion sizes to older kids, and getting hot and ready meals for the distance learning kids. They have changed the pickup times from only a half an hour window to a two hour window during the distance learning schedule. They know what they can improve on, and are willing to work hard to make the process as good as it can be for the families. If the district does decide to go back into a hybrid learning schedule, Brooks and the nutrition services in town will move back to what they were doing beforehand.

Overall, the main goal for Ms. Brooks and the nutrition services in town is to provide families with meals at no cost during this tough time. COVID-19 has greatly impacted not only this community, but the entire world and this is just a step in the right direction to help all of the families with children in town.