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LANGDON — A revamped approach to delivering school meals aims to keep children fed during the upcoming holiday break while assuring a much-deserved and needed respite for cafeteria and transportation staff.

Beginning on Monday, Dec. 21, The Abbey Group, a Vermont-based cafeteria services company who serves school districts including Claremont and Fall Mountain, will launch a two-week meals program designed to ensure children still have daily access to breakfast and lunch during the holiday break.

For each child under the age of 18, families on Monday may receive a free box of prepared foods and ingredients to create seven days worth of breakfasts and lunches. The following week families may pick up new boxes containing daily breakfasts and lunches through Sunday, Jan. 3.

With many families in the region grappling with financial challenges amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, including food insecurity and unemployment, The Abbey Group wants to maintain every child’s access to nutritious meals while the schools are closed, company representatives said.

“We are excited that we can continue providing service to families who are in need, and working through this together as a community,” said Willy Walker, food services director for the Claremont School District.

In designing the seven-day kit, The Abbey Group also sought to give school cafeteria workers and bus drivers some needed time off during the holiday break.

School cafeteria and transportation employees have arguably been among the unsung heroes in 2020. When New Hampshire schools switched in March to full-time remote instruction, districts began serving free take-home breakfasts and lunches to children from school busses parked outside each school. This federally funded program continued to operate daily, Monday through Friday, during the summer months as well.

Many of these bus drivers and cafeteria workers have “worked continuously” since March without any time off, said Jaca Hughes, food services director for the Fall Mountain Regional School District.

“It has been a long haul for these two departments,” Hughes told the Eagle Times. “They are tired. They have been committed to their communities and have really put themselves out there.”

“They really are an amazing collection of people,” Walker said. “It really shows how much commitment they have to the children.”

By preparing kits with seven days of meals, rather than one day of meals at a time, workers will only need to work one day per week during the holiday break, according to Hughes.

The meal kits are free and available to any child under the age of 18, Hughes said. The family does need to be a resident of the community though families are asked to pre-order their meal kits to ensure the staff prepares enough meals.

As of Tuesday, Hughes has received orders for 529 boxes, the equivalent of 3,640 breakfasts and 3,640 lunches.

“We have had a tremendous outpouring of support from the communities,” Hughes said.

That support has also come in the form of community donations, according to Hughes.

Beaudry Enterprises, a trucking company in Charlestown, has donated a 53-foot food refrigeration truck, which will allow cafeteria workers to safely store meal boxes prior to their delivery.

The need to refrigerate the kits once packed was one of the biggest challenges, according to Hughes. All of the ingredients — including half-gallon containers of milk, cheeses, fruits and vegetables — are perishable items and need refrigeration.

Paul Nickerson, an electrician from Charlestown, is donating his services to hook up the truck’s refrigeration at Fall Mountain Regional High School.

Walker said that Claremont’s schools have sufficient refrigeration space in their cafeterias to store the boxes.

So far Walker has received 195 orders for kits in Claremont but anticipates over 275 orders by the end of the week.

Both directors reported hearing from many families about the importance of these free meals during the holidays. Many families have shared their worries about the economy, especially as many of the federally funded relief programs are slated to expire at the end of this year.

In the Fall Mountain Regional School District, whose schools are scheduled to remain fully-remote until Tuesday, Jan. 19, The Abbey Group will resume its current meals pick-up program on Monday, Jan. 4.

The federal government has extended funding for district-wide free school breakfasts and lunches through June 2021. This program has traditionally only been eligible to all students in districts where at least 50% of the enrollment qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Since March, the federal government has lifted the enrollment provision to extend free school meals to all children nationwide.

To reserve meal boxes in Claremont or learn more about the program, contact Willy Walker at wwalker@abbeygroup.net or via phone at (603) 678-6644.

Families in the Fall Mountain Regional School District may sign up with their child’s bus driver or contact Jaca Hughes at fs-jhughes@sau60.org.

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