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The halls of Hays High School were empty of students Tuesday morning, but the kitchen was busy with the clatter of pots and pans.
Eight cooks from the USD 489 schools gathered at 7 a.m. to fix 600 meals, continuing the free lunch program even though schools are closed because of COVID-19.
Gov. Laura Kelly ordered all Kansas schools to remain closed for the rest of the current school year late Tuesday afternoon.
Breakfast and lunch were ready to serve by 10:15 a.m., with teachers and staff handing out meals in a makeshift drive-through at Lincoln Elementary School, 1906 Ash St.
The free meals, available for children ages 1-18, are served in Styrofoam to-go boxes and brown paper bags, said Jessica Younker, director of nutrition services for USD 489.
"It’s been pretty steady since we started serving at 11:30," Younker said about noon. "Anyone who comes through the drive-through with children can get that many meals; those are the federal guidelines. If a high school kid brings four younger siblings, we’ll give them five meals."
Tuesday’s offering was a hot dog, chips, a vegetable, a banana, a bagel and fruit, and two milks, one for lunch and one for breakfast.
Wednesday’s entree will be breakfast pizza, Younker said. Serving will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each day this week at Lincoln Elementary.
About 40% of the students in USD 489 get free and reduced breakfasts and lunches throughout the year, she said.
"We thought it was important to do this," Younker said. "We know families are probably losing paychecks over this whole thing as well, so we want to do what we can and provide some ease of mind for them as well."
The project is federally funded by the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program. Federal rules don’t allow the free school lunch program during scheduled school closings. USD 489, as well as other schools in the area, are out for their scheduled spring break from March 23-27.
The meals are being prepared with food the schools already had on hand as they planned for school to be in session this week until it was abruptly announced Sunday they would close.
"We had a bunch of fresh produce delivered already before we found out school was canceled," Younker said.
One of the district’s vendors, EVCO Wholesale Food Corp. of Emporia, on Monday morning delivered the Styrofoam boxes for hot items, brown bags for cold ones, and baggies for fresh fruit.
The district had surveyed parents to see how many would use the meal distribution program. If demand is strong, Younker said, the project will continue through this week and also may resume after spring break.
"So we’re hoping for the best," she said. "We would pick up again on March 30, assuming the need is there."