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Meal services keep providing during outbreak

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Monica West, the vice principal at Central Elementary School, hands a free lunch to grade school student Isla Seale on Monday during the program to provide local youth with free meals while schools remain closed due to the new coronavirus outbreak.

LA GRANDE — The shutdown of public schools due to the coronavirus does not mean some local youths will have to go without lunch this week.

The La Grande School District is making sure of it.

The district began serving Monday, through a federally funded Seamless Summer Option program. The lunches are available at Central, Greenwood and Island City elementary schools and for anyone 18 and younger regardless of the school they attend, where they live or income level.

The school district arranged to provide the program after Gov. Kate Brown ordered all Oregon public schools closed for two weeks starting Monday because of the coronavirus. Brown, in her announcement, encouraged school districts to provide lunches for students during the closure. The La Grande School District took heed of this message, contacting the Oregon Department of Education to find out which option would be best for it. La Grande School District businesses manager Chris Panike said the Seamless Summer Option was the best choice.

“It is good for kids,” Panike said.

The program allows school districts to provide free lunches to youths when school is not in session and then be reimbursed by the federal government. Previously, everyone getting a lunch had to eat the meal on site, but this requirement has been waived because of the coronavirus, Panike said.

Instead children and teenagers can pick up their lunches in paper bags and then leave. The “Grab and Go” sack lunch meals are available for pick up between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at the main entrances at the three elementary schools.

Children and teenagers on Monday picked up about 120 lunches at Central Elementary. Each sack lunch had a ham and cheese sandwich and an orange. Youth could then pick up a small carrot stick, a piece of broccoli and get salad in a plastic container.

Those helping provide the lunches at Central included secretary Connie Ingerson.

“It is a fun thing to do. It is always wonderful to see children and their parents,” Ingerson said.

She was impressed with the appreciation children showed for the meals, noting so many seemed sincerely grateful.

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Central Elementary students Nekoda Kearns, left, and Zaia Kearns leave their school Monday after picking up free sack lunches. The twins are with Shileigh Arnold, center.

The meals will be served at least through Friday and may be next week. The determining factor will be how many people participate in the program this week.

“We want to see how much of a need there is,” Panike said.

Good news on the meal front also extends to the Union County Senior Center. Although the senior center has temporarily stopped serving lunches at its meal hall under a directive from the state because of coronavirus, it still is making midday meals available to everyone.

“We do not want anyone to go hungry,” said Sydney Gleeson, Union County food service manager for Community Connection of Northeast Oregon, which runs the senior center.

Anyone, however, can come to the Union County Senior Center to get a meal between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. The meals are free to anyone over 60 but a $3 donation is suggested and everyone under 60 must pay for the lunch. This is the same fee and donation system in place for the meals when they were served at the meal hall.

Between 45 and 60 people a day have been to the senior center for lunch each weekday. Gleeson said her staff will be checking in on the people who normally come to the senior center but are not coming to pick up meals to make sure they are okay.

“We will be doing wellness checks,” Gleeson said.

She said people who want additional meals for the weekend will be provided them on Fridays.

The virus is not affecting the Union County Senior Center’s meals on wheels program, which continues to deliver meals weekdays just as it always has, Gleeson said. The meals on wheels also are free but donations are welcome. The program serves about 70 people a day in the La Grande area.

The Regional Food Bank, which is based at the Union County Senior Center and also run by Community Connection of Northeast Oregon, is continuing to operate as it did before the pandemic, said its manager, Audrey Smith. The Regional Food Bank is continuing to provide food for emergency food boxes to panties or food banks at seven sites in Union County: Neighbors Together, The Salvation Army and Shelter From the Storm in La Grande; the Cove Food Pantry; the Elgin Food Bank; the North Powder Food Bank; and the Union Food Pantry.

Smith said the Regional Food Bank is able to provide the same amount of food to these pantries as it always has. She does not foresee this changing.

“We have plenty of food and I’m confident that we will continue to,” Smith said.

She explained the state’s food bank does a good job of keeping regional food banks well stocked. She added nobody from the food banks and pantries the regional food bank serves has indicated they will be making any changes in the services they provide.

She said people who do not feel well are encouraged to send a family member or friend to pick up food from pantries and banks as a precaution.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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