Even as public schools have returned to in-person instruction, children who have elected to learn at home during the pandemic have had to come to school regularly if they want to collect their school meals.

Starting Monday, for public schoolchildren in Baton Rouge, that will change. They will be able to stay home and have meals delivered to their doorstep instead.

“I’m really pumped about this,” said Nadine Mann, director of child nutrition for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. “I am really excited that we now have a vehicle where we can deliver meals in a different way.”

The school system announced the change Thursday. The new service is to continue through the end of the school year in May.

Mann said there are 12,000 children — about 30% of the students in the school district — who are learning strictly at home. It’s been a struggle feeding them.

“I’m not really doing justice in providing meals to those students,” she said. “The students in the virtual environment are entitled to meals as well.”

Eligible families are being sent a link to an online signup form. To receive a week’s worth of meals next week, they need to complete the form by 5 p.m. Friday.

Families need to complete this same form again every week without exception, with a 5 p.m. Thursday deadline to submit.

“Every week they have to re-register,” said Taylor Gast, a spokeswoman for the school system.

Mann offered two reasons for having families re-register each week: to make sure that eligible virtual students haven't become ineligible by shifting to in-person instruction, and to make sure drivers have up-to-date delivery addresses.

Since the coronavirus outbreak in March forced the closure of school buildings across Louisiana, Mann’s staff have served grab-n-go meals on various school campuses. Over time, they shifted to handing out a week’s worth of meals once a week.

But as in-person instruction has resumed, meal pickups dwindled. That’s become even more so since Oct. 19 when all public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish resumed daily instruction. Mann said the number of meals she handed out was down 700 last week and fell again to just 500 this week.

Mann said she’d initially thought about using school buses to deliver meals, but she said the state health department rejected that idea since the meals include perishable items. Items with meat tend to need refrigeration, she said.

Without ready access to refrigerated trucks, Mann said she dropped the idea. But after talking a few weeks back with Emily Chatelain, the founder of Three O’Clock Project, an after school meal program, she learned about someone who might be able to help.

Enter TDP Group LLC. The company, run by local restaurateur Jeff Landry, has a fleet of refrigerated trucks as well as routing software to guide food deliveries. Mann soon struck a deal with Landry.

Like the curbside meals, the home-delivered meals are put together by the school system’s Child Nutrition department.

“It’s our product that we would normally cook in our kitchens,” Mann said. “It’s the same food.”

The meal boxes include a combination of fresh bread products, cereal, frozen entrees, canned fruit and vegetables, and shelf-stable milk. They include five lunches, five breakfasts, five suppers and five snacks.

“We’ve got a six-week menu pattern,” she said. “So they are not getting the same thing every week.”

TDP trucks will deliver meals once a week Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

One catch is meals cannot be left on the doorstep; someone must be present to sign for the package or they won’t be handed out. If no one is there when the truck arrives, Landry’s company plans to try again later in the week, Mann said.

Mann said she’s enjoyed working with Landry’s company so far, but nevertheless she is preparing to publicly bid the work and see who else would be willing to provide this service. She said Landry knows this is her plan and is likely to submit a bid.

Those with questions about delivery can call Landry with TDP Group/Focus Foods at (225) 936-4750. Those with questions about the food should email cgrisby@ebrschools.org.

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