Nat Kerman, Contributing Photographer

Students of New Haven Public Schools are now able to access hot breakfast and lunches at over 41 public schools in the city, thanks to the district’s meal giveaway program.

The school district’s central kitchen prepares the meals daily, following a regular schedule that can be viewed online. Pick up is Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Students and parents unable to pick up their meals during the allotted time can call the central kitchen to arrange further accommodations.

The program has traditionally served students and their families during summers as an effort to combat food insecurity. According to the district, Connecticut families are among the most likely to lack access to “healthy nutritious meals.” Amid the pandemic, district officials have kept the program running into the fall semester to ensure continued access to these meals. Since the beginning of the school year, the program has provided approximately 4,000 meals.

“Food is being made fresh on location as would be when [NHPS is] open,” Gail Cairns-Sharry, executive director of the NHPS food services division, told the News.

According to Cairns-Sharry, the district prioritized the continuation of its food services as NHPS announced that its students would begin the fall semester with 10 weeks of remote learning. NHPS has said it plans to continue offering pick-up meals even if the district returns to in-person or hybrid options later in the school year to support students that may not return to their schools.

Debby Ferriola is a member of the kitchen staff at Bishop Woods Architecture and Design Magnet School, one of the NHPS schools serving as a distribution site for the program. Ferriola said she is grateful the program has kept the district’s cafeteria staff employed. She told the News she hopes more local students and families will stop by to take advantage of the continued lunch program, though she realizes the limited pick-up times makes this hard for many.

The district has altered the program to increase the accessibility of its meals. Since its September restart, for example, the program has modified its offerings to meet the various dietary needs of local students.

NHPS parent Nijija-Ife Waters told the News that during her first visits to a food pick-up site in early September, she was unable to find food that her child — who has a severe tree nut allergy — could eat.

“It was a little rough for parents who have a child that suffers from allergies to benefit from the program,” Waters told the News. “A lot of times when we’re making these decisions, we don’t have the people that they can affect the most prioritized.”

After this incident, Waters said she led the City Wide Parent Team — a parent advocacy group in which she serves as president — to lobby the Board of Education and the city to guarantee allergy-friendly meals. The NHPS has changed its offerings and opened a hotline for parents to discuss dietary accommodations for their children.

Matt Wilcox, vice president of the New Haven BOE, told the News that NHPS food services are now “much more allergen-aware” after years of parent concern.

“It is something that we have gotten better at, and something that we can get better at still,” Wilcox, who chaired the Food Service Task Force last year, said of efforts to accommodate student allergies.

Wilcox said the district has worked to add new food services programs that accommodate diverse student dietary needs, such as an NHPS food pantry. The pop-up pantry will be the district’s first attempt to offer canned and nonperishable food items to local families.

NHPS will begin its pop-up food pantry on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at three schools and the central kitchen from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.

Zaporah Price | zaporah.price@yale.edu

Awuor Onguru | awuor.onguru@yale.edu