Nearly 800 meal kits which included a host of recipes for the food, were distributed on Friday to 294 families within the Ontario School District who had signed up to get enough food to stretch through the week of Thanksgiving.

While the schools themselves have been shuttered for distance learning due to COVID-19, meals have still been being distributed to students in need of them, throughout the week, and the district aimed to continue that over the holiday.

“We think it will be a really beneficial service to our families,” said Taryn Smith, public relations and communications coordinator for Ontario School District. “Students will have meal coverage over our extended district holiday breaks and can also learn a little bit about portioning and preparing their own meals.”

The meal kits will benefit those who are experiencing food insecurity as well as offer a “fun and enriching family activity,” in making those meals.

“As a district, we understand that food insecurity is a barrier for some of our students,” Smith said. “Our nutrition team has worked really diligently to navigate this barrier to our students and work to eliminate it.”

Smith said the concept for the Thanksgiving meal kits was born by director Pam Suyematsu, director of nutrition services.

“When our nutrition director decided she would make meal kits happen, she was hoping for around 750 kit sign-ups,” Smith explained in an email. “After the first day, we reevaluated to 900 because there were so many interested families.”

Suyematsu reached out to the OSU Extension office in Ontario and the Oregon Daily and Nutrition Council. The entities in turn helped curate the menus, print them and provide measuring spoons.

Funding came from the Summer Food Program, which was extended through the end of the year due to the pandemic. The program allows the district to feed youth ages 1-18, regardless of their enrollment.

“We are very grateful for this extension,” Smith said.

Sign ups for the Thanksgiving meal kits ended last weekend, and the nutrition department as well as many volunteers spent this past week sorting food into boxes.

“I have to give a HUGE shout-out to Emily [Maeda, district purchasing agent], and Pam for planning and choreographing the whole event. They had a very short window of time to plan and execute the event, and definitely rose to the occasion,” Smith said. “Along with them, kudos to our outstanding OSD lunch ladies and the district staff volunteers. The Ontario Recreation District also stepped in to offered manpower.”

As to the success of the meal kits, the number of sign-ups speak for themselves.

Smith said the district was “really pleased with the turnout and appreciation of the families.”

“We did have a few families not show up to get their kits,” she said. “Toward the end of the pick-up, we opened the site up to anyone in need, regardless of if they signed up or not. We also had a few volunteers deliver meals to our families in different neighborhoods around Ontario.” 

After Thanksgiving break, the district will gather feedback from families who participated to see what they did or did not like about the kits.

“We will be determining if families like the ready-to-eat meals, or if they like the fresh meals that need to be prepared,” Smith wrote.

This feedback will be taken into consideration for the next meal kits planned to go out over winter break. Because the state limits the meal kits to only hold food for a week, which is shorter than winter break, the district “will most likely have two different rounds for pickups,” for the winter kits.

“In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we are so grateful for our staff, volunteers, community, and our OSD students and their families,” Smith said.

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