St. Bernard and Plaquemines School Districts suspend meal programs
By Jason Browne
Both the St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish School Districts are suspending their meal programs effective March 24.
St. Bernard Schools served just under 31,000 meals over the past five weekdays and Plaquemines Schools served just under 11,000 since Gov. John Bel Edwards closed all state schools from March 16-April 13 to stop the spread of the coronavirus—a move that could extend through the scheduled end of the 2019-20 school year after the U.S. Department of Education waived academic accountability testing requirements this past weekend.
The move was announced by both districts today following discussions with the governor’s office and state DOE. In the wake of Edwards’ recent Stay at Home mandate limiting all non-essential travel outside of the home, both districts cited the safety of their food service staff as a driving factor in the decision. Plaquemines Superintendent Denis Rousselle also cited a diminishing supply of masks and gloves for food service workers.
Rousselle added that an unknown number of school districts around the state are also ceasing their meal programs.
“This has been an incredibly hard decision as we know that many of our families have been relying on these grab-and-go meals,” read a statement from St. Bernard Superintendent Doris Voitier. “However, in the interest of public safety and our continued focus on protecting our employees and their families, this decision had to be made.”
“The issue is not whether feeding students is important. We all agree that it is,” read a statement from Rousselle. “At the same time, staff and employee safety must also be considered.”
Monday, March 23, was the last day that St. Bernard and Plaquemines Schools distributed meals. Donna Norris, child nutrition and food service coordinator for Plaquemines Schools, said her food service workers were already feeding the maximum number of people with the least amount of interaction at their drive-through pickups.
“If a car drives up, we just ask them how many meals they need, put that many on the table and back up,” she said.
Now, parents with children home from school indefinitely will have to either buy more groceries or find another food program. In Plaquemines Parish, the Belle Chasse, Port Sulphur and Buras YMCAs are offering free lunches for children 18 and under, but none of the branches have the space or staff to reproduce the number of meals offered by Plaquemines Schools.
“I got a delivery in today to do 100 meals per day for the next five days at the Buras and Port Sulphur YMCAs. So 1,000 total for the week,” said South Plaquemines YMCAs Partnership Director and District 9 Plaquemines School Board Member Jennifer Sanger. “We have two staff members in Buras and two in Port Sulphur. And I don’t have the space to refrigerate any more food.”
The Belle Chasse YMCA distributes both breakfast and lunch from 3-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Belle Chasse Executive Director Jodi Nohra said her branch receives 200 meals per day and they have passed out their full supply every day.
By comparison, Boothville-Venice Elementary School, South Plaquemines Elementary School and South Plaquemines High School, the three southernmost schools in the parish, were serving approximately 800 total meals per day.
In St. Bernard Parish, which has no YMCA branches, President Guy McInnis said nonprofit organizations are assisting food-insecure families, but he doesn’t know how much food those organizations have in stock.
“There’s plenty of food in the grocery stores and most of our restaurants are open for carry-out and delivery. Other than that, we’re asking people to only be out for essential services. We’re imploring people to adhere to the advice of the president, the governor and local officials. Stay home unless it’s absolutely necessary,” said McInnis.
As of March 23, the Louisiana Department of Health reported that St. Bernard Parish had 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, and Plaquemines had eight confirmed cases.