Shirley Bookert showed up to work on her vacation to make sure uneaten pizza didn’t go to waste—and to address a hunger problem that arises when schools shut down for February break after two snow days.
Bookert, pictured with fellow cafeteria worker Elizabeth Austin, volunteered her time Monday to report to James Hillhouse High School, where she doled out free portions of mashed potatoes, turkey with gravy and pizza to people who work for the city, live in public housing, or otherwise found themselves around the school during February vacation, which is taking place all week.
The food was left over from last Thursday and Friday, when school was canceled due to Winter Storm Pax, according to schools food service director Gail Sharry. The school district teamed up with the city’s housing authority to distribute food Monday at Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross High. Staff volunteered to drive buses, provide school security, and ladle out the food for the one-time event.
The district offered 1,000 kid-sized portions at each high school Monday, according to Sharry. All uneaten food would be sent to a soup kitchen.
The event highlighted a lesser-noticed function of the schools as the primary source of food for thousands of families. Through the federal Free and Reduced-Price Lunch program, the district serves free breakfast at all 31 elementary schools, as well as free and reduced-price lunch at all schools, which serve some 20,000 kids.
When schools shut down for February vacation, educators worry about whether all of those students will find enough to eat. The concern is especially grave now, because of rising hunger and cuts to food stamps—and because snow cancellations created an especially long, 11-day break.
And hunger has been growing locally and nationally, while food stamps have been cut. (Around 36,000 New Haveners are estimated to rely on food stamps.)
“A lot of moms only have enough for dinner, not for three times a day,” said Tina Alford, who showed up for lunch Monday with her two sons.
Alford, who works in food service at the public schools, lives in the McConaughy Terrace housing projects in West Hills. She said her family is lucky enough to be able to afford food for her kids, but others around the neighborhood are not.
“I always worry about my kids during the week that they’re out of school,” said Hillhouse Principal Kermit Carolina. “I’m always concerned about how they’re eating, and what they’re doing with this idle time.”
“I don’t know how many parents of low-income families can budget for a week when kids are out of school,” he said. “Anytime that we can provide a service” such as Monday’s meal, “it obviously lessens the burden on parents.”
Members of Hillhouse’s girls basketball team, who were practicing for a post-season game on Thursday, said they usually go home after practice to find lunch, though sometimes their coach brings them food.
Sabrina Breland, principal of Wexler/Grant School in Dixwell, said about 25 of her students participate in a program run by her school’s Family Resource Center and a local food bank. Those students get backpacks of food every Friday to help them last through the weekend. Breland said the school saw the storm coming and distributed those backpacks on Wednesday last week before the storm hit. This week, she said, students will be returning to school to participate in a February break program from Tuesday to Thursday, but they will have to bring their own food.
Most of the people who took advantage of the free food Monday were elderly residents of public housing or city employees. A crew of public works laborers stopped by to fuel up on juice, pizza and hot food before heading back out to finish their 16-hour shift removing snow from streets.