2 - 3oClockProject_0064.jpg

Workers prepare meals for children throughout much of South Louisiana at the Three O'Clock Project's kitchen at Celtic Studios in Baton Rouge.

First it was just for virtual students. Now families in East Baton Rouge Parish who are sending their children to school in person can qualify for home-delivered school meals as well. And they can receive meals on weekends too.

It’s just the latest example of how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has upended traditional school meals.

“I still keep trying to wrap my mind around these changes,” said Nadine Mann, executive director of the child nutrition program for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. “It’s so different.”

The expanded meal service began in late January and more than 1,600 families have signed up, but Mann would like to expand.

“I need about 2,000,” she said.

Mann is also trying to offset a big falloff in in-school meal service this school year thanks to so many children learning from home.

The school system contracts with Focus Foods in Baton Rouge to prepare some, but not all of the meals, and to deliver them once a week in refrigerated trucks. Families who are new to the program or who are making changes in their deliveries need to fill out an online form by 5 p.m. each Friday for delivery the following week.

All of the nearly 41,000 students in the East Baton Rouge Parish school district are eligible, as well as students in other schools in the parish who already receive free meals in school. That includes children who attend school in Baker, Central and Zachary, as well as those in charter and some in private schools. Also eligible are their younger siblings who aren’t yet school age.

In providing so many meals, Mann is taking advantage of liberalized rules in a variety of feeding programs overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture meant to reach families that aren’t receiving the meals they have received in the past thanks to the pandemic.

“This is so foreign to what we have ever done in my 40 years with the school food service, but the USDA is allowing this to happen,” Mann said.

For instance, an array of after-school programs, where meals are often provided, have been on hold throughout the pandemic. That affects both in-person and virtual learners. Delivering meals to their homes, in this case a small supper and a snack, allows school to try to compensate for the absence of those after-school meals.

The USDA does require that the school system provide families receiving after-school meals delivered to their homes to have the ability to get virtual academic tutoring. Mann said the school system has an online tutorial program that she is providing information about to participants.

The weekly meal bundles contain a lot of meals.

Participating virtual families receive seven days a week worth of meals. That’s four meals a day, or 28 in a week, including a daily breakfast, lunch, supper and a snack.

Participating in-person families are not receiving breakfast and lunch on weekdays — they get those in school — but they do receive a supper and snack for each weekday, plus a full complement of weekend meals. That works out to about 18 meals a week.

Mann said families receive a mix of shelf-stable food and flash frozen meals, some prepared by her staff and some by Focus Foods, that are designed not to overwhelm a family’s refrigerator.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.