Katie Montebello, a nutrition services employee for Springfield Public Schools, hands out free gallons of milk as part of a special spring break food distribution to benefit students who otherwise might go hungry during the 10-day break that began Friday, March 11. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

On Wednesday afternoon, as 4:30 p.m. neared, a line of cars and minivans formed in the alleyway just north of Central High School. A few people pulling carts behind their bikes joined them. 

Inside Central High, Stephen Schneider and Katie Montebello wheeled two carts — one loaded with food, the other milk — from the cafeteria freezer toward the growing line of idling vehicles. 

Outside, taped to a traffic cone, there was a sign noting this was the place to pick up meals provided by Springfield Public Schools to tide students over during the March 11-18 spring break. 

While the sign included a phone number for drivers to call to alert Schneider or Montebello to come outside to deliver food, it was unneeded for the first 45 minutes of the hour-long distribution process: the line of vehicles never stopped and the only time either of the workers went inside was to race back out with more food or milk. 

In advance of spring break, SPS nutrition services staff members prepared 1,408 packages of food designed to provide a daily snack and meal for each student whose family requested it. Counting the weekends, that’s a 10-day gap for some students who rely on free or reduced price meals at schools to balance their diets. 

While the school district has for years expanded the opportunities for kids to get meals outside of when their lunch bell rings, pandemic-era periods of virtual learning led SPS to provide more at-home meals than ever before. 

But not until this spring break did the district provide more than seven days’ worth of food at a time, said Kim Keller, general manager of nutrition services at SPS. 

“This is the first time we’ve ever done it this way,” Keller said. 

Video by Shannon Cay Bowers

Planning began in December

To make it happen, she and the school nutrition team started planning for spring break back in December. Keller said the effort built from conversations with SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who said her expectation is that SPS is feeding students when school isn’t in session, whenever it is possible. 

Keller consulted with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to find out what was possible over spring break. The answer, Keller said, was that students whose families signed them up for spring break meals could receive 10 days’ worth of lunches and 10 days’ worth of snacks. 

Typically, the cap is seven days or less, Keller said, before another cycle of distribution begins. That’s in part because county health department guidelines place seven-day limits on providing perishable items to people. 

“We had to develop a menu that was all dried or frozen, so that these folks can take this home, freeze it, and then we give them instructions on how to heat everything so that it’s not going bad,” Keller said. “Typically, we’re giving out weekend meals for three days, or we’re just doing it for virtual students for seven days, So we did have to kind of create a different type of meal than what we usually (have). Because we’ll usually have deli sandwiches in there, and bananas and apples, fresh produce, pears and fresh broccoli and carrots and those kinds of things. We’re just trying to be as safe as possible.”

Over this spring break, DHSS approved SPS to provide students with one daily snack, which Keller said is defined as a “two-component” serving, and one daily meal, which contains five components. SPS wanted that snack to be as filling of a breakfast as they could make it. That took planning. 

Keller said she and other nutrition staff started mapping out how the servings and the distribution process would work in mid-December. The snacks included a number of non-perishable items, like cereals and breakfast bars, that could be paired with a serving of milk. Every student who was signed up for the spring break distribution got a gallon and four cafeteria-sized cartons. 

The spring break lunches consisted of a set of frozen food entrees — chicken sandwich patties, hamburgers and the like — frozen vegetables and a mix of fresh fruit and packaged fruit. 

When they weren’t serving food to Central High students, nutrition services staff spent hours filling the bulky to-go bags in the school’s walk-in cooler, where they were ready to go on March 9. 

Families of students signed up to pick up their food at either Central High or any of the other 13 secondary schools across the district. About 100 of the 1,408 grab-and-go spring break meal bags were placed in the trunks, backseats, bike wagons or hands of drivers and passengers who arrived at Central High on Wednesday afternoon. 

“It’s awesome that we’re able to help provide during this time that they might not have any other food at the house,” Keller said. “I mean, this is a long time for kiddos to be out. For us to be able to ensure that they’re gonna have something in their tummies while they’re out of school, that’s what we do.” 

Federal waiver allows free school breakfast, lunch for all students

Putting together 10-day packages for students is the latest evolution of food distribution for Springfield public school students during the pandemic. The coronavirus changed who can get free meals through public school systems and how they can get them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture waived requirements to qualify for free breakfast and lunch. That allowed all in-person students, and families of students who are learning virtually at SPS, to get seven days of food each week. 

“It’s two years ago this next week was when all of this happened,” Keller said inside the Central High cafeteria on March 9. “It was the week of spring break, and I’m thankful that we had that week to plan.” 

The Sunday before classes would have resumed in March 2020, all kinds of district employees, senior leadership included, joined Keller and others in school cafeterias to pitch in and make meals for students who were suddenly virtual learners. 

“We were making meals every single day for people to pick up,” she said. “And by Friday, we were making meals and putting them on a bus for those people that didn’t have transportation. We were putting meals on a bus and taking them to the bus stops. It was an all-district effort to make it happen. It was amazing how we turned it around and made it happen. It was good. I mean, I was here and (former Superintendent John) Jungmann was here. He had a hairnet on, and was helping us make meals. It was amazing. I got a picture of us. I got a selfie.” 

In March 2020, the district provided 95,736 meals to virtual learners. From the start of the pandemic to February 2022, SPS has provided more than 1.8 million meals and snacks to students for at-home learning. And that doesn’t include the 28,160 meals and snacks in the 1,408 bags that went home this spring break. 

While opportunities to access free meals have increased, Keller said demand has increased at a greater pace. Through programs like Breakfast in the Classroom and Club Encore, SPS has offered opportunities for students to access meals in non-cafeteria settings for years. Keller said she’s seeing more people taking more of those opportunities in the last two years.  

“We really have,” she said. “Everything else is going up. I mean, gas is going to be $4 a gallon before you know it. Food is expensive, you know. (Families have to decide), ‘Am I going to feed my kids or am I going to put gas in the car?’ So this is a great opportunity to help cushion that a little bit.” 

When the distribution process began outside Central High, the driver of one of the first vehicles in line told Schneider and Montebello that she was collecting food and milk for eight SPS students. From that point on, the pace proceeded at a hectic rate, Montebello said, even for someone who works in a high school cafeteria. 

“Crazy pace,” she said. “It’s always a little bit rushed, but this is crazy.” 

Keller said that the Central High cafeteria staff put together the grab-and-go bags in the finite windows of time available around normal breakfasts, lunches and after-school meal and snack prep, all while shorthanded, as many cafeterias in the district are. 

“They’re rock stars, and they’re making it happen,” she said. 

Crazy as the pace was, Montebello said she appreciated the brief interactions with the families waiting in line. Normally, she said, she only sees their kids. Nearly all of the drivers and passengers thanked her, Schneider, Keller and also Teresa Bledsoe, assistant director of communications for SPS. Bledsoe was on hand to facilitate this story, but started handing out milk gallons as the line of vehicles started to snake out onto North Benton Avenue.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson