Five days' of breakfassts and lunches are in each of these bags, prepared at Evanston Township HIgh School and distibuted on Mondays at several parks in Evanston.
Five days' of breakfassts and lunches are in each of these bags, prepared at Evanston Township HIgh School and distibuted on Mondays at several parks in Evanston.

Abriana Johnson was working as a server at Maggiano’s and pulling in good money from tips, before the Governor’s directive came down March 16, effectively closing restaurant service throughout the state.

At the time, Ms. Johnson’s daughter Addy, 3, was attending the Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Center, which was closed too, in the State’s battle to limit exposure to the Coronavirus.

“I’m not on public assistance, so it’s kind of harder for me to feed my daughter day-to-day because she usually eats at school three meals every day,” Ms. Johnson said.

She said the staff at the Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Center, where  Addy  goes to daycare, sent out emails calling attention to the free meals program the City was running.

Ms. Johnson was one of several hundred people at the Robert Crown Community Center on a chilly Monday, March 30, going inside the center and picking in up paper bags that contained five days’ worth of cold breakfast and lunch meals.

The program is eligible to youths from 1 to 18 years of age and there is no residence requirement.

“I think it’s great,” said Ms. Johnson. “I think Evanston is really showing its community right now we’re all in this together, going through this Covid-19.”

The program represents a partnership among Evanston Township High School District 202, the City of Evanston, and Evanston/Skokie School District 65.

Usage has really taken off since the program began March 16, with officials planning to distribute 1,600 bags, containing a total of 16,000 meals (each bag contains five breakfasts and five lunches), at the next Monday’s distribution.

At Robert Crown on March 30, employees had distributed more than 350 bags alone in under 45 minutes, with lines starting at the back of the center’s spacious parking lot

“I just left Kamen (Kamen Park David Wood Fieldhouse, 1111 South Blvd.), where they delivered about 300 bags, so we’re going through them fast,” said Lawrence Hemingway, the City’s Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, supervising the activity

“It just speaks to the need here in the community,” Mr. Hemingway said. “The goal is if people want the food we want to give them the food ... just as if they were going to school, and having breakfast and lunch, so we’re trying to provide that same service — breakfasts and lunches. It eases the burden of those families in need, so we’re hopeful we’re doing our small part.”

Employees in the high school’s Nutrition Services Department assemble the meals, for which the District receives state and federal reimbursement.

The conditions are a little more uncertain these days because of the havoc caused by the virus.

“You can imagine — just the supply chain,” said Kelly Diaz, Evanston Township High School’s Assistant Director of Nutrition Services. “Delivery days are somewhat affected. You can imagine tons of school food services operators are looking for individually wrapped or individually packed items — that all can [be transported] and meet this need.”

Staff members work in shifts of ten out of the kitchen at the high school, 1600 Dodge Ave. They are “fairly spread out -- as you can imagine, for the safety of our employees,” said Ms. Diaz.

“Friday is kind of a dry set, with non-perishable items that will be going in the bags,” she said. “And Mondays, they top everything off with milk, fruit, veggies, yogurt, cheese — anything that is coming out of the cooler.”

Also, between the high school’s stock and District 65’s middle and elementary schools, the food teams have been able “to draw down our inventories to avoid and reduce waste since schools are closed,” she said.

City and school officials initially operated the program in a daily basis, but moved to a once-a-week Monday schedule on March 23, looking to reduce the number of times individuals would need to leave their homes.

At Robert Crown on March 30, Heather, a Washington Elementary School  parent, said the packaged items help her stay out of the grocery stores, where “I’m a little nervous,” she said.

 “My husband is pretty sick ... he’s at a higher risk, so I don’t want to be bringing anything home to him, nor do I want to get sick.”

“And it also provides treats to the kids that I ordinarily wouldn’t buy because they’re not in my budget,” she added.

Such as?

“I think that the first week they had ‘Uncrustables,’ which are peanut butter sandwiches that my kids really liked — not something I would put in my budget,” she said, chuckling.

“It’s also been fun to take some of the things we normally wouldn’t eat, and we’ve been creative [with] — using fruits in other ways — pies or cobblers. We don’t let anything go to waste.”

Ms. Diaz said she and her staff, doing their work “in the back of the house, have received a few expressions of thanks for their work.

One, originally sent to the District 65 administrative offices, came from a family in that District, keeping a “Gratitude Journal” during the crisis.

The children noted the milk and yogurt in the bags as items that made their list.

To receive that kind of notice,

“is so wonderful and its great for our staff to see that as well,” Ms. Diaz said.