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Ice chest holds non-heated foods to be distributed at an East Baton Rouge Parish Schools Grab-N-Go School Meal site at Capitol Middle School, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, prompted by the school closures because of the novel coronavirus threat.

More public school districts across Louisiana are suspending Grab & Go student meal programs amid concerns about the potential exposure of school workers to the novel coronavirus unless those same employees receive more protective gear, which are in short supply.

In the Baton Rouge region, West Baton Rouge and Tangipahoa parishes, Central and Zachary school districts, as well as the Diocese of Baton Rouge, announced they served their last meals Monday for the time being. West Feliciana Parish plans to stop serving meals after Wednesday and Pointe Coupee Parish will stop after Thursday's meal service.

By contrast, Ascension Parish, one of five school districts in the Capital region to halt meals on Sunday, has agreed to restart meals Tuesday but only until Friday and only at East Ascension and Donaldsonville high schools, from 10:30 to noon. Three previous Ascension meal sites will remain closed.

“Limiting the locations will allow us to institute important safety measures such as having school nurses on-site to take the temperature of each employee and wearing protective gear during food distribution,” said Ascension Superintendent David Alexander.

Zachary Superintendent Scott Devillier said his district has ordered pre-packaged meals that it hopes to start handing out in early April.

The four other local districts that closed their meal programs this weekend — East Feliciana, Livingston, St. Helena and St. James parishes — had not restarted them as of late Monday afternoon. The districts decided to suspend their meal service after a conference Sunday between superintendents and Gov. John Bel Edwards' office. The call briefed the school leaders on Edwards' "shelter in place" order issued that same afternoon.

The Edwards administration has been urging, to little avail, that school districts should keep serving meals for the rest of this week while the state explores alternatives.

The meals programs started up last week as an attempt to reach needy families who had previously received meals at school, but could no longer thanks to the state-ordered closure of schools through April 13. Under disaster waivers, these meals are open to all children aged 18 or younger, no matter their income or where they live.

East Baton Rouge Parish schools continued serving meals Monday, expanding the number of sites from seven to nine, and all are set to continue for the rest of the week. Associate Superintendent Ben Necaise said that, unlike several other districts, the school system was able to obtain masks, gloves and other protective equipment as well as thermometers for its food workers.

Even so, Necaise said the school system is considering potential alternatives in the future, including possible outsourcing.

Normally, traditional public school districts can’t outsource school meals. But those restrictions have been waived for now, expanding opportunities for nonprofit and commercial food vendors to serve student meals.

The Three O’Clock Project, a nonprofit which serves meals to needy children after school hours, launched a food delivery service Monday in Baton Rouge, handing out meals at several BREC parks along six routes.

Emily Chatelain, founder of the organization, said participation was uneven on the first day but she’s reworked the routes for Tuesday, and BREC is planning to post more signs.

Chatelain said she’s also reached out to school districts that have shut down their meals programs, offering to help, but had yet to hear back.


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