As traditional public schools in Louisiana have edged away from serving meals to children marooned at home due to the coronavirus, a joint venture between an after-school meals program and several Baton Rouge restaurants is moving in quickly to take their place, offering relief to families and beleaguered eateries alike.

Children had challenges finding meals already. Gov. John Bel Edwards' March 13 order closing all Louisiana public schools made that all the more difficult.

“These kids are going home, they don’t have food — or they have something cheap and unhealthy,” said Emily Chatelain, a a consultant to school meal programs across the country.

Chatelain founded the nonprofit Three O’Clock Project in 2016 to serve nutritious meals to children after school and during the summers. She wanted to continue with the nonprofit's mission despite the schools' shutdown.

Realizing this was too big a job to do alone, Chatelain teamed up with Jeff Landry, owner of Taco de Paco, to develop what has turned into a fast growing mobile meal service. Chatelain estimates that in a week’s time her organization will deliver 30,000 meals a day and likely more in the future.

In a flurry of activity, four Louisiana school districts on Friday announced they were signing on to Three O’Clock Project. Livingston Parish, Central, Zachary, and the state’s largest school district, Jefferson Parish, will see trucks full of meals starting Monday.

That’s in addition to meal deliveries Three O’Clock Project has been making since March 23 in Baton Rouge, primarily at BREC parks. On weekends, the nonprofit is stopping at 10 Baton Rouge public schools to hand out meals.

About 630,000 children in Louisiana receive free or reduced-price lunches, making it the state’s largest feeding program. To ensure that those children had access to food during the coronavirus crisis, hundreds of schools reopened, offering Grab & Go meals. The meals are free to children 18 or younger, without restrictions on income or where children live.

Zachary High was one of these feeding sites. But it closed after just one day. It was part of a wave of school districts that reconsidered providing student meals as COVID-19 spread fast across Louisiana.

“We were concerned about the health risk for our employees, especially those who are older and maybe health compromised,” explained Zachary Superintendent Scott Devillier

The virus poses special challenges for school cafeterias, which can be small, requiring people to work at close quarters. Those serving the food also face potential exposure from the people they are feeding. These problems have been made worse by a shortage of protective gear.

Finding school cafeteria workers willing to risk getting sick has proved a challenge.

Three O’Clock Project, however, didn’t have a problem finding people.

“We were handed a workforce, and people who really wanted to help and work,” Chatelain said.

Landry with Taco de Paco turned for help to other Baton Rouge restaurants: Pullin’ Pork, Big Cheezy, That's a Wrap, Olive or twist, Rouj, City Pork, Mid City Beer Garden, Twin Peaks, Drusilla Seafood and Louisiana Lagniappe.

Landry recently leased space at Celtic Studios, which has a commercial kitchen. To ensure social distancing, they work an assembly line, standing several feet apart in the large warehouse on spots marked by tape on the floor.

“We have 60 people working at the same time,” Landry said. “It’s amazing how much food you can put out.”

Unlike charter schools, which are free to hire out food service, state law obliges traditional public schools to run their own meal programs. That law, though, was recently waived amid the current crisis.

Pointing to this waiver, the Louisiana Department of Education has been urging school districts that suspended service to consider outsourcing instead.

Jason Fountain, superintendent of schools in Central, settled quickly on the Three O’Clock Project as the best alternative for his suburban Baton Rouge school district.

“We’ve been looking at trying to get other options,” Fountain said. “It’s good because it keeps our employees out of the mix.”

All the more remarkable is that Chatelain has been building her mini-food empire at her home in Denver, where she’s been confined along with her husband and two children, the youngest just three months old.

Chatelain said she’d been urged before to start a full-fledged food company, but she resisted, worried it was too complicated.

“And here I’ve done it in a week,” she said.

Waiting in line for a lunch of chicken alfredo on Thursday at Evangeline Street Park, Miranda Kelly said the past few days have been hard. The four sets of meals she grabbed Thursday for each of her four kids are a big help.

“I’ve not been working for about eight months now,” she said. “I’ve been managing to stay above water, but by (the kids) being out of school now, it’s kinda hard to keep food in the house.”

Some traditional public schools are sticking with their meals programs.

For instance, East Baton Rouge schools are not only continuing but expanding, opening a new feeding site Monday at Istrouma High in Baton Rouge. Nevertheless, its employees are now wearing protective gear.

The trend, though, is in the opposite direction.

Besides the Three O’Clock Project, another alternative is to deliver food by mail.

Assumption, East Feliciana, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Helena, Tangipahoa and West Feliciana parishes have applied for and either have been accepted into or are waiting for acceptance into an emergency food service program known as “Meals-to-You” recently developed by the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, an initiative of the Waco, Texas university’s school of social work. The program, which began last year in rural Texas and is now going nationwide, sends meals that don’t require refrigeration to the house of schoolchildren.

Superintendent Devillier in Zachary said he welcomes help wherever he can get it in the current crisis.

“We’re all going to have to take care of each other and help out where we can in this situation,” Devillier said.


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