Cutline Sharon Malone, Diane Morcos, and Denise Hunt Boucher, all with the  Food Service Division, Arlington Public Schools at the curbside food pickup at Thompson Elementary.From left, Sharon Malone, Diane Morcos and Denise Hunt Boucher, all with the Food Service Division, Arlington Public Schools, at curbside food pickup at Thompson Elementary. See more photos >>

Story, photos
by Melanie Gilbert

On a normal day, students in Arlington’s 10 schools and one preschool would be fed breakfast and lunch in their buildings’ cafeterias. The past 15 months, though, have been anything but normal.

“Usually, our work flies under the radar,” says Denise Hunt Boucher, food-service director at Arlington Public Schools for 14 years. “Covid changed all that.”

The district’s food-service outreach during days of both remote and in-person learning is a combination of to-go style hot lunches for the on-site elementary students; cafeteria-style lunch service for the Gibbs, Ottoson and high school students; and weekly meal-kit pickups for remote learners and any family with children in Arlington.

All of it is free, thanks to government subsidies that started at the beginning of the pandemic and have been expanded throughout the crisis.

“It isn’t perfect,” says Hunt Boucher with characteristic modesty, “but we are feeding the kids.”

This multilevel food-delivery model is a culmination of numerous pivots that Arlington’s food-service division made in response to the unprecedented emergency sparked by the virus. Hunt Boucher and her team had to constantly reimagine the role food plays in the school and broader community.

Covid closes schools

On Sunday, March 8, 2020, the town of Arlington closed Stratton Elementary School as a precaution due to a presumptive positive case of Covid-19 in a parent of a Stratton student who was also showing symptoms. By Monday, their positive diagnoses were confirmed, and the student was the first known case of a Massachusetts child becoming infected. That Thursday evening, the town’s leadership decided to close Arlington’s public schools, effective March 12 through at least March 27.

Limiting Covid’s impact on the health and safety of Arlington residents was the immediate challenge -- how to feed the nearly 700 students who depended on the federally subsidized reduced or free food program was another. That was the job of Hunt Boucher and her food-service team.

“[Superintendent Kathy] Bodie called me the night of March 12, to tell me the schools were closing. She said, ‘You’ve got the weekend to make this happen.’ She’s been amazing. She gave us the autonomy to do it, and trusted that we could get it done.”

Sharon Malone, a 27-year food-service veteran and lifelong Arlington resident, remembers the “all-hands-on-deck” vibe of those frantic early days. “At first, we were like, ‘How are we going to do this? Where do we even begin?’ Something like this had never been done before.”

Reimagining food access 

Hunt Boucher said moving existing supplies at the various schools to Thompson Elementary in East Arlington was the first order of business. The school, whose rebuilding was dedicated in 2013, features a large walk-in freezer and refrigerator, dry-storage rooms, a full prep kitchen with multiple ovens and lots of counter space. It was the ideal setup for the new normal.

Just one week after the town’s first positive case, the food-service team, which includes Diane Morcos, the elementary school food manager, as well as numerous lunchroom employees, distributed “to-go” lunch bags every day from Thompson’s lobby.

At first, it was just cold foods – sandwiches and bagels. But we knew we needed to reach more kids, so we moved to a weekly delivery service.”
                                                                                                                                                               
-- remembers Denise Hunt Boucher

“At first, it was just cold foods – sandwiches and bagels,” remembers Hunt Boucher. “But we knew we needed to reach more kids, so we moved to a weekly delivery service.” That townwide effort required more coordination and resources. Pitching in to ramp up the outreach were school deans, teachers, nurses, support staff, bus drivers, information technology and athletic departments.

“That’s what’s so great about my team and this community; they go with the flow,” says Hunt Boucher. The new approach worked, and demand jumped.

“We delivered 300 to 350 bags,” says Hunt Boucher, “containing 14 meals each. That’s a lot of food.” As word got out, the team eventually returned to the curbside pickup and meal-kit model, which continues today.

To-go meal kits 

The 2020 school shutdown was extended through April and then into May. By the time Gov. Baker announced that the state was extending the closure of all public and private schools through the end of the school year, Hunt Boucher’s team had already found their groove.

“Ordering was the tricky part,” said Hunt Boucher, “We needed to design menus with food that was easy for kids – to open, to microwave, to eat. We were able to recreate the kids’ previous cafeteria experience in bag form.” That included frozen versions of the most popular item on the school lunch menu: pizza.


Food resources

Meal kits are available for pickup at the Thompson School, at 187 Everett St., Arlington, on Wednesdays from 7 to 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

On June 30, the schedule changes to 7 to 10 a.m. only. Please contact the food-service division at 781-316-3643 or email questions to
schoollunch at arlington.k12.ma.us.

Any Arlington resident in need of food, regardless of age, can call the Arlington Food Hot line at 781-316-3400.

Arlington is also a certified Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) application location for all ages in town. Call the Arlington Council on Aging at 781-316-3400.

In addition, contact two Arlington nonprofits – Food Link and Arlington EATS.

In response to the deepening public health crisis over the summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture relaxed food restrictions for school districts. Under guidance from the Food and Nutrition Service, Arlington could extend its food-eligibility program to anyone in the community with school-aged children. The extension was a game-changer for Hunt Boucher and her team.

“This fall, it really took off,” said Boucher. “We went from 350 bags during the summer, to 1,600 bags of food. It was a little overwhelming. We are able to offer meal kits with seven days of breakfast and lunch to anybody in the community with school-aged children 18 and under, regardless of income or school enrollment.”

Curbside pickup 

The Thompson gym was appropriated to handle the demand. The increase was caused in part by rising unemployment numbers, illness and reduced incomes. But, says Hunt Boucher, it was also due to incredible community support. “People were picking up bags for their neighbors, and supporting the program through participation.” After the initial burst, numbers settled down around 1,200 bags being picked up every week.

Each meal kit is packed for just-in-time, curb-side distribution and contains 14 meals – seven each of breakfasts and lunches. For breakfast, there’s cereal, yogurt, pancakes and breakfast bars; snacks like graham crackers, animal crackers, cheese sticks, chips and fruit slices; and for lunch, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, vegetables, bagels and sandwiches. Fresh fruit and a variety of drinks round out the fully loaded bag along with a half-gallon milk. Bags with gluten-free and vegetarian options are also available. 

The U.S.D.A. has extended the program through the summer. 

Hunt Boucher's team is ready

Starting every Wednesday morning, a steady stream of cars rolls up to the curb on the Everett Street side of Thompson. Hunt Boucher, Malone and Morcos work in a well-tuned fashion loading bags into cars. A young boy shouts, “Good morning” to them followed by energetic waving out the window of his back-seat perch. His mom picks up for several neighbors, says Malone, as she loads multiple bags on the trunk.

“Honestly, I feel it went extremely well,” says Malone in between loading meal kits into cars. “To hear that the kids are happy – and fed – makes me happy.”

Hunt Boucher concurs. “At the end of the day, we want to feed people.”

Another car pulls up to the curb. Malone, Morcos and Hunt Boucher spring into action. 

This fall, it will be back to business as usual -- fingers crossed -- with in-person learning and cafeteria-style food service as before the pandemic hit.   


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This news feature by YourArlington freelancer Melanie Gilbert was published Monday, June 28, 2021.