It’s hard enough to manage remote learning, Zoom calls, Google classroom, and online glitches for any stressed-out kid. It’s even tougher when you’re hungry.
One in five children in Eastern Massachusetts experiences food insecurity, according to Feeding America. Many of those children rely on free or reduced-price school meals. When school isn’t in session, reliable sources of nutrition are even harder to come by.
As such, Roxbury’s Bridge Boston Charter School kicked off the school year with an innovative plan: launch a food truck and invite families to sign up for free personal deliveries, prepared by food service director Guy Koppe, an alum of Cambridge’s Harvest and Rialto restaurants.
“Parents, at least during COVID, are working two or three jobs to compensate and to make sure their household is running. Some lost their jobs during COVID. This is one less thing a parent has to worry about,” says Craig Martin, Bridge’s executive director.
Bridge serves 340 children in grades K1-8 from throughout the Boston area, enrolled via public lottery. Approximately 63 percent of Bridge students are considered economically disadvantaged. The school is currently remote, complicating schedules for parents such as Maria Burton, a nanny who is on hiatus from her job.
“I signed up because it’s been hard for me to keep up with meals during the week for the kids, to be able to have that time to go to a grocery store. I need to be home with them now that everything is remote. It saves me a lot of time,” says Burton.
“I guess I never knew how much they ate. I worked every day, and they went to school every day,” she says of her two kids. “This cuts down on time and costs for me.”
Three days a week, Bridge staff members hit the road, visiting a few Boston neighborhoods each day. Families receive five days' worth of breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. Banish all thoughts of hot dogs and chicken nuggets. Meals include chicken and sausage cacciatore, penne Bolognese, Dominican chicken stew, and egg and cheese croissants.
About 80 percent of families at Bridge take advantage of the service. It’s a marked increase from their springtime plan, when families could pick up packaged meals at school. Koppe says his team reached only about 20 percent of families then, hindered by scheduling constraints.
Lack of access is a crucial problem, and it’s hard to focus on class when you’re wondering about your next meal.
“Kids are more apt to get on their Zoom calls, to learn and to be engaged, when they have one less thing to worry about. We’re trying to remove as many barriers as possible,” says Martin.
Burton’s kids enjoy milk and snacks like Annie’s cinnamon crackers. "And they even tried a breakfast muffin,” she says, laughing.
Families also receive fresh fruits and vegetables from Russo’s market in Watertown as well as Concord’s Gaining Ground farm, which provides produce to hunger-relief organizations. A week’s bounty might include beets, red romaine, or Swiss chard.
“These are beautiful, pristine vegetables that are grown locally,” Koppe says. “I think the whole mission of the food service program here at Bridge is not to serve a typical school lunch. We make as much from scratch as possible,” straying from shelf-stable items as much as possible.
“A lot of people think, ‘Ugh. School food.’ But we use the same produce purveyors that I used working in restaurants,” he says.
Koppe assembles the packages with a sous chef and two cooks. The arrangement helps keep his staff employed; he hasn’t laid off kitchen staff due to student traffic.
“Luckily, so far, we don’t have to make those decisions, because we’re serving a good chunk of families,” he says.
It’s one more way to reach the community during a time of crisis, Martin says. He hopes to continue to run the truck throughout the winter; some associated costs are supported by donors.
“We have some really generous benefactors,” he says. “But the cost of delivery is something that, long-term, we’ll have to do some fund-raising.”